10/16/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Obama's Quiet Revolution

To millions of Americans and their children caught in the pincers of a pressing need for a college education that each year grows more expensive, the Obama administration has quietly thrown a lifeline. So quietly, in fact, that you probably don't know about it.

It's called Income-Based Repayment, or IBR, and it's not a grant, or a temporary forbearance. It's a guarantee to every American that if you leave college in debt, you won't have to pay more than fifteen percent of your disposable income every month to repay that debt. (Starting in 2014, this percentage shrinks by a third to ten percent, under a tweak to the plan called "Pay As You Earn".)

Interest still accrues on your loans while you're enrolled in IBR, and as your income increases, your payments scale up. But if you still haven't been able to pay your loans off fully after 25 years, the remainder of your loans are forgiven.

Guess what program Romney and Ryan oppose?

IBR isn't just a proposal, or an Obama campaign promise. It's in effect right now. But as far as I can tell, not only have relatively few people signed up for it, almost no one's talked about how revolutionary it could be.

The future social effects of IBR go far beyond lowering a monthly bill. Forgive me a Wall Street analogy: like a stock, an education is an investment, with an uncertain return. But unlike a stock, that return, though real, isn't always entirely financial. Americans shouldn't be penalized for making that investment. Moreover, I'm pretty sure that most of us don't aspire only to an income; we also aspire to do something meaningful with our lives.

IBR's quiet revolution is to put that aspiration within reach for millions of people.

It means that you, or your children, now have the ability to pursue meaningful careers that are relatively low-paying, but nevertheless require expensive degrees. Careers, for instance, in essential non-profit work, which are often unfairly relegated to the children of the wealthy (due, paradoxically, to these jobs' low wages). IBR makes it possible for anyone to plan a future in education or the arts, or in medical, scientific, and legal jobs that require intensive training but place social good (which should probably be called social profit) ahead of capital gain. IBR also makes it easier for college graduates to endure the corporate hazing of unpaid "internships" -- a rarely-discussed obstacle to upward mobility in America.

Obviously, IBR isn't a permanent fix for the problem of soaring college costs. But it does guarantee that until those costs are brought under control, college applicants and graduates (and their families) don't need to fear being crippled by debt because of their education. And without that fear, they're freer to invest in our society with their lives.

The Obama administration, unfortunately, has seemed strangely timid about publicizing this profound investment in our country's future. And loan providers, as you might imagine, don't seem eager to trumpet its existence. I had to do a little digging on my own provider's web site to find the simple form I needed to sign up for a year of IBR. But once my paperwork went in, IBR went into effect for me within a few weeks. And because my income is low, it lowered my payments to almost nothing. Because, thanks to Obama, that's the law.