Today’s column is a reality check. Those of us who live inside the Beltway can tend, at times, to get caught up in our own echo chamber, so I wanted to make sure it was clear to you what our advocacy efforts on your behalf are all about.

Advocacy can mean many things, of course, but in our case it is pretty straightforward. Our working premise is that the United States has the greatest system of higher education in the world, and that those who pay much of the bill for that system, namely parents, deserve a seat at the policy table when it comes to discussions of college costs and ways to meet those costs.

Recently, when I testified before the Committee on Education and the Workforce of the U.S. House of Representatives, I was told by the staff of that committee it was the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the passage of Higher Education Act, and its subsequent reauthorizations, that the parents’ point of view had been represented in committee deliberations.

Since I had only five minutes to present my views, on behalf of parents, to the committee, I chose to concentrate on two areas – Cost Transparency and Federal Student Aid as a Greater National Priority.

While I am fairly certain that no one reading this column would argue with an increase in student aid, I imagine that some of you might be wondering what I mean by greater cost transparency. What I emphasized at the hearing is that families do want – and need – more and better information about the rate of tuition increases in general, as well as statistics on those specific schools that are successful – or not – at keeping prices as low as possible.

I also emphasized the importance of effectively communicating to families an overall message that college attendance remains possible. I made the point that across the continuum of the socioeconomic spectrum – from the neediest to the wealthiest of Americans – a dangerous notion is developing, a misperception that college is becoming out of reach for all but the most affluent.

The fact is that the majority of students do not pay the “sticker price” for a college education. Yet the majority of families do not know that fact, so that when they see stories in the paper or on TV about the cost of college, they either get very alarmed (not good) or they just give up (even worse).

Some families may be turning away from higher education because they think that it is just too expensive. Such a retreat could be difficult to discern because of the oncoming surge in the college-age population. My sixth-grade son will be part of the largest high school graduating class in U.S. history in 2010, larger than any class in the baby-boom years.

The sound caused by the steady march of these kids in the baby-boom echo could mask a silent retreat by some families, who believe that the cost of college is just too much for them to bear. Since there will, over at least the next several years, inevitably be a greater raw number of students attending a two- or four-year college or university, that is not the only statistic that we should be watching. We should also be watching for the percentage of the college-age population that is, in fact, attending college. That number has been increasing every single year since 1970, and for the individual good of young people, and the collective good of our society, we should all be working to ensure that it continues to increase.

That’s where greater cost transparency and a greater emphasis on student aid as a national priority intertwine. As a member of College Parents of America, you may already know that financial aid is being made available in record amounts in order to help students meet record college costs. But do the majority of families know that? I doubt it.

Whenever the discussion turns to the topic of how to best get information into the hands of parents, the answer in Washington consists of four words: “cool Web site needed.” The reasoning seems to be that a new and improved Department of Education Web site will be “the answer” when it comes to providing families the college preparatory information they crave.

To those four words, I responded to the committee with four of my own: “remember the digital divide.” I told Congress that while the digital divide may have narrowed a bit since the late 1990s, when it was a focus of politicians and the mainstream media, it has not gone away.

In fact, survey after survey reveals that those who are most likely to need information about financial aid options are the least likely to have it, and a “cool Web site” will not address this critical issue.

So I strongly suggested to members of the committee that, as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress should mandate the U.S. Department of Education to implement a national advertising campaign, principally utilizing the wide-reach mediums of television and radio, to accomplish two goals: 1) to provide context on the costs – and benefits – of higher education; and 2) to let people know about the widespread availability of financial aid.

If and when I get a chance to testify before one of the tax-writing committees, in either the House or the Senate, I will recommend an increase in both tuition tax credits and in tuition tax deductibility. I need your help in spreading the word on those two issues, and I will address them more specifically in next week’s column. Meanwhile, Happy Father’s Day weekend, and please enjoy these long days of early summer.

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