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By Robert Weiner and Zoe Pagonis

August 20, 2009

Originally published in the New Jersey Star Ledger

We were number one, back in 1992. Now the United States ranks fourth in the world for college completion, with only 39 percent of Americans holding degrees.

The Russian Federation (50.4 percent), Canada (47 percent) and Japan (40.5 percent) are all ahead of us, so far. We rank 11th in the percentage of graduates among people age 25-34, a sign that other nations are rapidly passing us by.

President Obama recognizes the urgency. To make college accessible to more Americans, he budgeted $129 billion in new grants, loans and work-study programs.

That's a start. But tuition has risen so fast that we have reached a point where, for many, the debt is not worth the degree.

Over the past decade, according to College Board, the average annual cost of going to a four-year public college has reached $6,585, more than double what it was in 2000 and more than quadruple the cost in 1982.

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The logical explanation for such enormous increases would be increased quality of college education. However, according to the U.S. Census, in 2007, the earnings advantage of college graduates over high school grads actually dropped by 6 percent.

It comes down to dollars for degrees - at least as important as cash for clunkers.

Fifteen states will have no increase for the coming year. However, this September, students in 35 states will return to their campuses to find higher tuition rates. New Jersey students will be among them, but will be helped by a new 3 percent tuition cap for all state colleges-an improvement over the previous year's increases including 8.5% at Rutgers, 7% at Montclair State and 7.25% at Rowan University.

More needs to be done.

It is time for Congress and individual states to adopt the model of Maryland, where public college tuition costs have been frozen since 2006. Diverting a small portion of the federal budget - approximately $800 million - could pay for a tuition freeze at every public institution across the nation, increase attendance and reduce student debt. It's a reasonable shift if the U.S. wants to return to No. 1 in college graduations.

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Under Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who made it a big campaign issue, his state initiated the 3 year public college tuition freeze while keeping educational quality intact. The state centralized purchasing and made other systems more efficient to cut expenses.

Ranked number one by Education Weekly for K-12 education, Maryland "keeps its best students in the state" through college, said Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President for the American Council on Education. This is not the case for New Jersey.

Ranked fifth for best K-12 education, New Jersey exports 19,000 bright, well-prepared students a year to out-of-state colleges - the most in the country. Could the $11,886 in state tuition at Rutgers for the fall 2009 semester (compared to $8,057 for University of Maryland) have something to do with it? We are both graduates of highly regarded Garden State high schools but - we sadly admit - both attended universities outside New Jersey.

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Robert Weiner, NATIONAL PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND ISSUES STRATEGIST Bob Weiner, a national issues and public affairs strategist, has been spokesman for and directed the public affairs offices of White House Drug Czar and Four Star General Barry (more...)

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