06/12/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Neglecting College Affordability Is a Colossal Moral Failure

When I hear people flinging around numbers about college affordability and student loan debt, I can't help but think about the lives behind those numbers. Consider Jorge, for example, a young man I met on a recent trip to Texas.

He told me: "By all accounts, I should have been a failure. My dad's illiterate. Mom has only a GED. My wife and I married at age 16, and we had our first child two years later."

Against the odds, both Jorge and his wife now have bachelor's degrees. In fact, Jorge is working on a master's of social work so he can provide much-needed support to the kids growing up in his community.

To pay for college, they had to borrow a lot of money and already owe more than $60,000 in student loans. Jorge explained his dedication to pursuing higher education: "My brother always says that I could have had a house for that. But I tell him, 'They can foreclose on your house, but they can't foreclose on your education.'"

Still, as I listened to Jorge's story, I worried. I couldn't help but think about how tough it is going to be for him and his wife to pay back those loans on a social worker's salary. I thought about the house and all of the other things they couldn't buy for their kids because of their student loans. And yet, I am proud that they made a commitment to work hard and earn their degrees. We need the Jorges of this world to get a good education if we are going to succeed as a country in the decades ahead.

But while I am proud of Jorge and the countless others like him for overcoming the obstacles to getting a college education, I am ashamed of the rest of us.

Ashamed of a federal government that could have chosen to provide students like Jorge with a larger Pell Grant, but instead chose to protect tax relief for pretty new buildings at fancy private colleges, and tuition tax credits and deductions for families making $180,000 a year.

Ashamed that our do-nothing Congress can't get its act together in time to prevent an increase in student-loan interest rates. If Congress doesn't take action by July 1, interest rates on federal student loans will double, placing an unnecessary, additional burden on more than 7 million students like Jorge who are trying to learn their way into the middle class.

Ashamed that, at a time when we need more college-educated workers than ever, state governments are choosing to disinvest in public higher education and to prioritize increases in so-called "merit" aid over aid for the needy, driving the cost of attendance even higher for students like Jorge.

And ashamed of colleges and universities that could provide more generous grants to low-income students like Jorge, but instead use their own resources to lure the top-achieving, affluent students who don't actually need a scholarship, but who help boost schools' positions in national rankings.

Some of these things -- tax credits for new buildings on college campuses, aid for students from well-off families -- are not bad, especially when we are flush. But we are not flush now.

In tough times, we have to make choices. When resources are limited, the unwillingness of federal, state and institutional leaders to prioritize help for the truly needy is a colossal moral failure that has grave consequences for the young people trying to get the education they need to reach the middle class. Given the demographics of this country, it's also colossally stupid: If we are really focused on re-energizing the U.S. economy, we need far more of our young people to enter and complete college.