02/07/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2012

The College Debt Bubble

For parents trying to save so their kids can go to college -- and I'm one of them -- Barack Obama's latest State of the Union was the Emancipation Proclamation. Americans now owe more on their college loans than on their credit cards, and the price of a higher education is rising twice as fast as inflation.

Going to a state college was once a middle-class entitlement, but now that degree is a luxury item. Students used to be able to pay their way through school with a part-time job. Now students are graduating with more debt than if they'd bought a new Mercedes Benz. The only way someone can work their way through school nowadays is by installing a stripper pole in their dorm room.

Midway through his State of the Union, Obama finally said, "Enough." The president waved a bunch of carrots -- doubling work-study programs and making low-interest Perkins loans more available -- before bringing out the stick. If colleges don't get more affordable, then the federal government could turn off the financial aid spigot.

"Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid," said Obama. "We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down."

Perhaps not shockingly, a key House Republican called the president a "dictator." Really.

"The president is saying that people can't afford to go to college anymore, and that just simply is not true," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is chairwoman of the House Higher Education subcommittee. "Tuition is too high at most schools, but it isn't the job of the federal government to punish those schools. It's very arbitrary, and the president sounds like a dictator."

To Washington Monthly's Daniel Luzer, who has written extensively about higher education, Obama's proposal "seems basically good to me."

"The only real lever he has to make college affordable is federal financial aid," said Luzer, who said that Obama using that lever "shouldn't be that surprising."

Still, college presidents such as Al Bowman of Illinois State predicted a rapid deterioration of the classroom experience should Obama get his way.

"You could hire mostly part-time, adjunct faculty. You could teach in much larger lecture halls, but the things that would allow you achieve the greatest levels of efficiency would dilute the product and would make it something I wouldn't be willing to be part of," said Bowman.

Luzer pointed out that Illinois State, where tuition has gone up 47% since 2007, has faced vicious budget cuts from the state legislature. But Bowman also makes $384,000 a year and recently oversaw the construction of a new, $49.6-million gymnasium.

"If you think you need that gym, fine, but don't pretend that all the money goes to students and teachers," said Luzer. "Don't make it sound as if every dollar you spend goes to educating your students."

For full disclosure, I should say that Luzer is my sister-in-law's boyfriend, which is why I read his brilliant Washington Monthly article in 2010 that decoded higher education's poisonously flawed business model. Colleges are fighting a prestige arms race, building trophy gyms and luxurious dorm suites to lure students. With states reducing their higher education funding, these colleges are funding these lavish construction projects by creating the college debt bubble.

In a normal market, you could shop around for a better deal, but Luzer says students and their families have little power when every state is cutting funding and every college is raising tuition at twice the rate of inflation. As long as a college degree is the golden ticket into grown-up job land, Americans have to accept increasingly large debt burdens.

"The market is like your health insurance policy," said Luzer. "The price you pay isn't what it costs, you never know if you get a good deal, and consumers have little power. The market is obscured. It's not really a free market. It's a controlled market, and it's not controlled all that well."

To demand that colleges begin offering value and transparency in such a huge investment is neither arbitrary nor dictatorial. Obama's proposal offers incentives to increase accountability and transparency. You know, a market-driven solution that is, for what it's worth, long overdue.