What a mess. If a $5 billion state budget deficit doesn’t scare you, then perhaps the specifics will.

Wisconsin‘s state-sponsored college savings funds, EdVest and Tomorrow’s Scholars, plunged 11.3 percent this year, translating into a loss of $251 million for the taxpayers who clung to the naive notion that the state could actually help provide their kids with a college education.

Don’t get me wrong. The program itself is great. EdVest and Tomorrow’s Scholars allow people to make relatively modest contributions to a state trust fund, which comprises a diverse portfolio of investments. Participants are allowed to invest on behalf of a dependant, child, grandchild, great-grandchild, niece or nephew whose college education they plan to finance. They can withdraw the money, free of federal and state income taxes, as long as they spend it on tuition and other college-associated expenses.

The program is an example of good government policy, and it displays the existence of progressive tax cuts, which benefit the lower and middle class and stimulate worthy investment.

The tragedy is that thousands of Wisconsin families trying to pay for college next fall are looking at their savings and realizing their money would have been better invested sending Bobby to baseball camp in Florida and hoping he could get that curveball to break him into the Big Leagues.

Now that smart, boring investment they reluctantly made with the state has shown itself woefully inadequate of providing that solid nursing degree they were hoping Jane would forgo her incomprehensible passion for Italian literature to get. No, now it’s off to the lenders, who are even more reluctant now to give out loans because of the credit crisis. In fact, University of Wisconsin professor Howard Schweber predicted on Monday that the impending failure of the student loan business could mean the end of some UW System colleges, such as UW-Stout and UW-Barron.

And the state of Wisconsin, strapped to the bone by the deficit and a constitutional requirement to present a balanced budget every two years, is unlikely to aggressively fund financial aid for college students as would be appropriate in economic downturn.

Now Wisconsinites look to the federal government to provide leadership on higher education that has been sorely missing for more than a decade.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to implement an “American Opportunity Tax Credit,” which would grant families $4,000 a year to cover the costs of tuition. This would effectively make most community and technical college education free, as well as make expensive public institutions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison much more affordable.

Maybe the plan is politically too ambitious. Despite the huge Democratic majorities in Congress, the cost may simply be too much for fiscal conservatives to stomach, especially considering the pressure from many Democrats to aggressively pursue an equally bold health care plan.

However, the notion that making college drastically cheaper for millions of Americans is radical — dare I say socialist? — is absurd. It is a sin against the ideal of American exceptionalism that we still consider higher education a privilege and not a right for all those who seek it and are qualified. It is counter-intuitive for politicians to rally against aggressive measures to get the American population into colleges as fast as possible when the global economic competition is increasingly providing those same benefits to its citizens.

It’s unfortunate that I have to repeat this clich? to get the point across, but college is the new high school. For those of us who don’t have jump shots or uncanny entrepreneurial expertise, college is really the only way we can secure a steady income in a free-market and global economy. Obama urged President Bush the other day to aid Detroit automakers to prevent economic shock, not because he realistically sees GM and Ford employing another generation of crafty high school graduates. The future lies in big investment in education, from early childhood to post-graduate studies.

Although education was not at the forefront of virtually any political campaigns this fall, my hope is that the Democratic victories signal the voters’ understanding that the Republican Party aimlessly championing tax-cuts and business incentives is no friend of American competitiveness without an articulate commitment to increased college education.

Although Democrats have yet to prove themselves on the state level, the merit of their political success alone gives reason to be optimistic. In Wisconsin, the Democratic takeover of the Assembly has resulted in the dismissal of Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, from his chairmanship of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. Hopefully we will no longer be obligated to listen to his spokesperson and alleged puppet-master, Mike Mikalsen, deliver nauseating platitudes about combating liberalism in academia, as if the ideological imbalance in the political science department is the most pressing educational issue in the state.

Jack Craver ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history.