I’m in hearty agreement with Sam’s post about Harvard and Princeton’s decision to eliminate early admissions. It’s a good move, but in reality will effect a handful of low-to-mid-income “high-achivers” who would likely receive decent financial aid packages at whatever school they end up attending. Columbia, for example, recently joined Harvard, Yale and Princeton in replacing loans with grants for families earning less than $50,000 a year. Other well-endowed, private universities will no doubt follow suit — if only to keep up with the Lions, Tigers and Bulldogs.

All this buzz at the top distracts from the crisis in higher education at the instutions that have most contributed to upward mobility in this country: state universities and colleges. Almost across the board, state funding for public colleges shrank over the past 20 years. While Ivied NYT geeks bickered over the meaning of Harvard’s decision, the Kansas City Star reported that “state support for Kansas universities is at an all-time low” (dropping from 49% in 1985 to just 29% in 2005). Meanwhile, tuition increases at state universities have far out-paced inflation. The result is that more students at public schools are going into unmanageable levels of debt.

According to a recent report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), “the average borrower who graduates from a public college owes $17,250” (up from $8,000 just ten years ago). Even more striking, in 2004, 88.5% of Pell Grant recipients took out student loans averaging $20,735, and private loans have increased seven-fold over the past ten years.

As the AASCU and Nicholas von Hoffman point out, high levels of student debt can radically limit the career and life choices graduates make. Teaching and social work are near impossible. So too are left-wing journalism or political rabble-rousing.