A college education has always been a major investment, but one that was not out of reach for a student who had the drive and commitment to pay back student loans.

That has changed. What was once a significant but achievable goal, rivaling the magnitude of buying a car, has become a much more serious commitment — more like buying a house. It is a huge risk for a 17-year-old who might still be making some false starts before finding his way. But it is the only choice available for many middle-class families.

Over the last 30 years, tuition has outpaced inflation, and room and board fees have grown even faster. Adjusted for inflation, American students borrowed twice as much in 2011 as they did in 2001.

The cost explosion in higher education has many causes.

It is partly a result of state governments retreating from their historic responsibility of financing public institutions and partly a result of competition among both public and private schools to attract the most desirable students with plush housing, athletic facilities and other amenities.

Students who want to someday compete for jobs in a world where a high school diploma is not enough have little choice. If their families can’t afford to pay the sticker price, they have to be willing to go deeply into debt or risk never being able to achieve a middle-class income.

In most of the world, this issue is resolved easily. Higher education is only for the very rich, and they are willing to go abroad to access it. In our competitor countries in the developed world, such as the countries of Europe, nearly free college educations are accessed on a merit basis. In the United States we have a complicated public and private system, where federally backed, low-interest loans are the difference makers for most families. Recognizing the importance of this program, the Obama administration spearheaded an effort to cut the interest rate for student loans in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. The rate is scheduled to increase to its old level July 1 if Congress doesn’t act.

At least on the surface, both parties agree that doubling the interest rate on college loans is a bad idea, but Republican House members put a poison pill in their version of the loan rates extension they passed last week, which President Obama rightly threatened to veto if it ever came to his desk.

The plan championed by Speaker of the House John Boehner would raid money earmarked for a women’s health program from the Affordable Care Act, something that he knows would never get past the Democratically controlled Senate, let alone the president. College students should not be held hostage for an ideological battle over health care financing. This standoff preserves the issue for both parties in November, but does little for the students and families who can’t wait until after Election Day to make such an important investment in their futures. There is plenty of time to campaign in the summer and fall. Members of Congress should come up with a solution to this problem now that would maintain lower interest rates for students who are in the process of committing to attend college next fall.

And if they were really interested in helping students and the economy, they would work to make it possible for more students to receive grants instead of loans, minimizing the debt that they will carry when they enter the job market to the levels people graduated with a generation ago.

That’s the kind of investment in increased opportunity and economic expansion that the whole country should be willing to make.