Politicians running for everything from the presidency to dogcatcher point to education as a crucial issue for America. We know education is the avenue for creating opportunity in life, and every politician worth his weight in campaign promises has a plan for improving the quality of education in our nation and for enhancing access to higher education.

Politicians seem to think the biggest barrier to a college degree is financial aid. Clearly, the politicians who think this have yet to help a child actually apply to an American university. The biggest barrier to higher education isn't money; it's the application process itself.

In short, the only people who can get into college these days are the students with a personal executive secretary (aka "Mom"). You can't complete the process without an Excel spreadsheet, 27 different user names and passwords, an electronic signature PIN, tax returns dating to the American Revolution and a partridge in a pear tree.

Back in the educational Stone Age when I applied for college, I filled out a simple form, got a check from my parents for $25 and asked the secretary at my high school to send the admissions folks a copy of my transcript.

My daughter, a high school senior, has been working on this process for the past several weeks. Time is running out since most of these are due on Jan. 2.

Between now and then, she has to file regular applications as well as supplemental application forms, have SAT and ACT scores sent to the schools on her list, and for good measure, round up recommendation letters from several teachers, our pediatrician, the UPS deliveryman and the guy running for dogcatcher.

Oh, and if she has any hope of getting into one of these schools, she has only about a month to cure a disease. And not just any disease. To do her any good in the competitive world of college admissions, it would need to be a really good disease.

Perhaps the most time-consuming aspect of the college application process - not to mention the part that makes access to college much more doubtful than simply paying for it - is the completion of roughly 87 essay questions.

You want to know why college remains a distant dream for many of America's young people? Because they are ill-equipped to write a 250-word response to prompts such as "If you were a midcentury jazz song, what song would you be and why?"

Actually, having read a couple dozen of my daughter's college essays, I'm certain our politicians are missing out on a treasure trove of ready answers to the pressing issues of our day. This is because at least twelve universities want high school seniors to answer the question, "What is the most pressing issue of our day and how would you solve it?"

Unfortunately, most college applicants are unwilling to answer this question honestly because for them, the most pressing issue of the day is coming up with an answer to the question about a pressing issue of the day - and not just any answer, but one that will cure a really good disease.

I appreciate the concern that politicians have for those of us whose children face the daunting task of gaining entry into an institution of higher learning, but having read the education platforms of both major parties, I think they're missing the point. They can offer all the financial aid in the world, but until one of them comes up with a compelling reason to be "Take the A Train" over "Java Jive," I'm thinking America's higher-education dilemma will continue.

Then again, as answers go, improving access to financial aid is close enough for jazz.

Published Wednesday, October 22, 2008 in The Washington Times
Reprinted with permission