What Better to Invest in Than Education? : Rather than criticizing Clinton's plan to aid students, we should seek to expand it.

Forty-six years ago, I went back to school. Thanks to $2,000 per year and tuition and book expenses under the GI Bill of Rights, I was able to get a doctorate in economics. That support from the government gave me a career.

And there were millions of returning veterans like me, who got education and training--many the first in their families to go to college--found jobs, bought homes and raised productive families. The federal debt in 1948 was far higher in relation to the nation's income than it is today, but I don't recall too many people worrying about it. Our veterans deserved an education and the opportunity for good jobs.

The centerpiece of President Clinton's "middle-class bill of rights" is post-secondary education. Its offered support--tax deductions rather than direct government spending--is far less, although the stakes are as great or greater.

Yet we hear a chorus of naysayers--columnists, politicians and some economists--who protest that this is bad economics, a shameful political capitulation to voters who will gain little and do not want the benefits. Would not the economy be much better off if the hoped-for savings in government operations were devoted instead to reducing the deficit--already projected to go down this year to half of what the Bush Administration envisaged for fiscal 1993?

The naysayers are all wrong. I could devise a more direct, more generous measure to effect the new bill of rights, but, given the political situation, perhaps this was the most Clinton could now offer.

Unless we educate more of our people to meet the challenges of advancing technology, our futures will be compromised.

Here and throughout the world, the well-trained and well-educated are getting richer and richer and those who are not are falling further behind. Both to reduce the widening gaps in our own social fabric and to keep pace in the world, we must see to it that all of our people are as well-educated as possible.

Currently, 60% of high school graduates go on to post-secondary education. There is evidence that lowering the cost of that education increases the number of students. With the costs of post-secondary education lowered, there may be fewer high school dropouts as students look to diplomas as certification for further study.

Some research findings indicate that the savings of the Clinton proposal for a "middle-class" family in the 15% tax bracket--savings amounting to about 7 1/4% of the cost of a typical year in college--might increase enrollment 5%, or more than half a million people.

It is estimated that each additional year of post-secondary education, whenever undertaken, adds 6% to 12% to income. The average high school graduate who goes on to post-secondary training as a result of this tax-code change, the Labor Department has estimated, can expect to add $400,000 or more to the economy over the course of a career compared with students who stop at high school.

As to the government support merely going to raise tuition and faculty salaries, as an old professor, I could wish it were true. When government support has risen more rapidly, tuition has not increased in tandem. Competition is increasingly keen among colleges and universities, and they are in less and less of a position to ignore competitive pressures and raise their own costs and tuition charges. Like any business, they would just lose their customers to their competitors.

There is of course more to the middle-class bill of rights than this support to higher education. Expanded IRAs could also support post-secondary education and home purchases. There are re-employment grants to help laid-off and disadvantaged workers get training. And there are $500 tax credits for children under 13.

Much more should be done for education at all levels. We used to talk of cradle-to-grave security. What we need now is cradle-to-grave education: parental training, infant care, Head Start and preschool advancement, quality day care, education in elementary and high schools that ends the huge proportion of functional illiterates and raises us from virtually last to first in skill comparisons with other nations and higher and continuing education for better jobs and better living conditions.

The middle-class bill of rights is at least a start. Let the cynics who would knock it look back at my World War II generation and our bill of rights. We believed that we would do better than our hard-working parents, and we did. The new generation deserves no less.

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