When those countless radio ads tout homeownership as the “American dream,” what they fail to mention is that a college education is often the ticket to achieve that dream.

Those who work in higher education are well aware that various studies have shown that a college degree can make a difference of up to $1.6 million in lifetime earning potential and greatly lessen the chances of one becoming unemployed in an economic downturn.

But while the “consumer” in the U.S. housing market is very well defined, what’s not so clear is the answer to this question: Who is the consumer of America higher education?

It’s not that there is a shortage of answers, or of consumers. In fact, there are a remarkable number of higher education consumers beginning, of course, with students.

Because students are expected to manage their own affairs – including decisions and responsibilities around academic, financial and personal issues – schools naturally treat students as their key customers, and accord them the rights and responsibilities available in any key customer relationship.

Many schools recognize, however, that some situations, particularly in the freshman year of transition, may strongly suggest the wisdom of contact with parents. This contact often comes only as a last resort, as college and universities in general would rather resolve issues of academic and personal conduct directly with students, before bringing parents or any outside party into the loop.

But as the cost of education continues to rise, is it reasonable to expect that “students” alone will remain the premier recipients of service, and to receive the respect accorded with such status?

The answer is probably not. The parent, who is footing a substantial amount of the college bill, is gaining ground, at least in small part due to our efforts at College Parents of America. But if parents are to attain fuller recognition of their “education consumer” status, shouldn’t they be better informed so that they can knowledgeably weigh in on such basic questions as increased grant aid, or bigger-picture issues such as how a school can adopt the ever-elusive 21st-century business model?

Scott Sudduth, a vice president in the University of California system, underscores this point. “An informed consumer is what we are lacking here,” he told a congressional roundtable on college costs. He and others at the roundtable, hosted by U.S. Rep. Howard S. “Buck” McKeon, disagreed on many issues, but found common ground on the fact that all consumers of higher education need access to more easily understandable information in order to make informed – and better – decisions in the college marketplace.

Who can really disagree with that statement? Nobody. Who can help to ensure that such an education system is actually built? Everybody. When it comes to spurring action by government officials, school superintendents and principals, and higher education leaders, plain old grassroots leadership is essential.

Grassroots leadership, on your behalf, is one of our three principal goals at College Parents of America. And the development of better family knowledge regarding college costs, financial aid eligibility requirements and applications processes is a must-do, in my view, if we are to properly train you to be effective members of our grassroots army.