GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is once again offering a display of that extra special common touch he’s got. According to a piece by David Firestone in the New York Times:

Youngstown, Ohio – The high school senior who stood up at Mitt Romney’s town hall meeting here today was worried about how he and his family would pay for college, and wanted to hear what the candidate would do about rising college costs if elected. He didn’t realize that Mr. Romney was about to use him to demonstrate his fiscal conservatism to the crowd.

The answer: nothing.

Mr. Romney was perfectly polite to the student. He didn’t talk about the dangers of liberal indoctrination on college campuses, as Rick Santorum might have. But his warning was clear: shop around and get a good price, because you’re on your own.

The problem with this is not necessarily that it’s awkward to say “I don’t care” to a student, though surely it was. The problem is that his advice demonstrates a certain foggy understanding about the way American education actually works.

Most people can’t “shop around” for college. About 80 percent of American undergraduates attend public institutions. Most people (about 56 percent of them) go schools within 100 miles of their parents’ house. The problem isn’t that students aren’t shopping around. It’s that all the stores are too expensive. Firestone:

“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” he said, to sustained applause from the crowd at a high-tech metals assembly factory here. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Well let them eat cake.

Since 1980, the cost of public universities, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. And so if the state doesn’t fund the public colleges very well, as the former governor of Massachusetts might understand, students just pay more for college. There’s no “shopping around” and “going to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education” that will fix that problem.

Perhaps Romney believes that’s appropriate. But be realistic. Higher education is public policy. It’s maybe state and not federal policy, but shopping won’t change the trend here.

Perhaps it’s fine if college just gets more expensive. But this means that people just have to take out more burdensome student loans and eventually fewer people in America will go to college. That’s that only direction this can go.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer