Sensing a political opening in the soaring costs of higher education, Democrats have seized on college aid and made it a key pillar of their election-year agenda, hoping their pledge to make school affordable pays dividends in November.

The daunting expense of college is one of an array of issues facing the middle class that Democrats are molding into a social agenda they hope will resonate with voters.

“We need to win the House,” says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “With the Republicans in control, they have made it very clear they are not going to work on the affordability of college.”

Republicans, however, insist that higher education is a priority for their party, and cite two new grant programs as evidence. They say funding student aid has become a challenge amid declining state budgets, increased college enrollment and a massive federal deficit, and they claim Democrats are playing politics with the issue. “Erroneous information has been put out by Democrats,” says Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.

Both sides agree that the cost of going to college is rising, and so is student debt. Over the last four years, the cost of attending a public four-year college has increased 32 percent, while median family incomes have risen less than 6 percent.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the total cost of attendance has climbed to $15,810 for the 2006-07 school year from $10,830 in 2000-01. At the University of Chicago, a private institution, the cost climbed from $32,877 to $44,613 in the same period.

As a result of tuition jumps, 62 percent of undergraduates are taking out loans, with the average debt totaling $19,800, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Democrats complain that the Republicans have kept a comprehensive discussion of college costs and what to do about them off the congressional agenda, especially in the Senate. Republicans have preferred to focus on issues designed to energize their base, such as a same-sex marriage ban and a flag-burning amendment, they say.

Education advocates argue that despite the cost, every attempt should be made to help students pay for college.

“This is sort of a national priority,” says Earl Hadley, the education coordinator for Campaign for America's Future, a progressive policy research project. “We don't question how we pay for the Iraq war. To make our country strong, we need well-educated students.”

© 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.