Decades ago, college was only for the elite. It took progressive federal policy to expand access to higher education. But the New York Times reports a familiar story today about how even public universities are turning away from their mission of providing education for all:

Like Florida, more leading public universities are striving for national status and drawing increasingly impressive and increasingly affluent students, sometimes using financial aid to lure them. In the process, critics say, many are losing force as engines of social mobility, shortchanging low-income and minority students, who are seriously underrepresented on their campuses.

"Public universities were created to make excellence available to all qualified students," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group, "but that commitment appears to have diminished over time, as they choose to use their resources to try to push up their rankings. It's all about reputation, selectivity and ranking, instead of about the mission of finding and educating future leaders from their state."

This effort to lure the elite comes just as many lower and middle class students are drowning in debt; the typical student emerges from college owing over $17,000. You can find the average for your state at the Project on Student Debt.

Since the Reagan administration, Washington has only made the problem worse, as columnist Paul Loeb writes:

In 1980, the maximum Pell Grant covered 77% of the average cost of attending a public institution. It now covers just 33%. In December 2005, the Bush administration made the situation far worse by cutting $12.7 billion in Federal financial aid. They reduced Pell Grants, cut successful low-income support projects like some of the Trio programs, and enacted major cuts in student loan subsidies, which will leave students paying far higher interest rates for years.

In calling for student interest rates to be sliced from 6.8% to 3.4%, the Democrats have picked a good issue. Their plan also calls for increasing Pell Grants from $4,050 to $5,100 per year and expanding tax credits towards higher education. These are policies that make sense, and will have a payoff eclipsing the 5-year price tag of $18 billion. Indeed, real progressive legislation would go much further, such as capping debt payments on those who take public service careers.

As Loeb notes, it's also an opportunity for political leaders who want to speak to the next generation of voters, and get them mobilized around progressive issues:

Passing new laws to broaden access to higher education won't be easy. But the Democrats could consider it an opportunity. Whether or not they can pass the necessary bills over Bush's potential veto, they now have a chance to reach out and organize, particularly on campuses whose students are used to politicians ignoring them. If they can do enough to highlight the crisis in access to education, they can give grassroots campus groups a major boost in getting their peers involved. They can help engage students in drawing the links between how they or their classmates struggle to pay for their schooling and the larger priorities of our country.