As I See It by Cynthia Tucker — The United States used to be among the world's leaders in educating its citizenry.

WASHINGTON — The United States used to be among the world's leaders in educating its citizenry. After World War II, Americans completed college at higher rates than most other countries as returning soldiers used the GI bill to pay tuition.

My father was among the veterans who completed college with Uncle Sam's assistance, a beneficiary of a farsighted federal government that understood boosting college attainment was good for the country. That cohort of college boys helped to lead a prolonged period of national prosperity. They fostered educational achievement in their children, who often completed college, as well.

College assistance was also a signal accomplishment of the Eisenhower administration, which spent millions on education after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Among other things, Eisenhower created a loan program to help students pay college costs.

But somewhere along the way, the nation lost its focus on pushing educational achievement. We became complacent while developing nations rightly decided that college attainment would help them achieve economic growth. Just 39 percent of American adults have an associate's degree or higher, compared with 55 percent for Canada and 54 percent for Japan.

The United States now ranks 6th in the percentage of adults ages 18 to 24 who are enrolled in college — behind, among others, Hungary and Poland.

Even worse, the U.S. ranks 15th in college completion rates — a figure that President Obama cites often and has vowed to improve.

In a speech last year, Obama called the nation's failure to boost academic acheivement a "prescription for economic decline. ... That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Congress has just made a down payment on that promise. Ammendments attached to health care legislation — and largely overshadowed by the spectacle accompanying that debate — include a student loan overhaul that will add billions in funding for Pell grants, which help pay college costs for about 6 million students.

Pell grants, started in 1973, have long been popular and well-used — a significant source of funds for students without the means to pay for college. During the 1970s and '80s, the grants, which don't have to be repaid, helped many students become the first in their families to obtain four-year college degrees.

But as college costs soared over the last two decades, Pell grants didn't keep pace. The grants once covered about two-thirds of the costs of a public university; now, they cover only about a third.

Higher-education experts have long pointed to steep costs as one of the reasons that so few students manage to finish college in four or five years. Even community college costs have risen, forcing some students to drop out before they can complete a two-year degree.

With state legislatures nationwide threatening budget cuts that could lead to steep tuition increases at public colleges and universities, those increased Pell grants could help some students stay in school.

"It's a transformational opportunity," said U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The upgraded Pell grants not only help prepare a future workforce, but the measure also ameliorates the growing income inequality that threatens to make the U.S. a deeply class-stratified society. By assisting working-class students with college tuition costs, the Pell grants give them the boost that affluent kids get from their well-heeled parents.

Predictably, the student loan overhaul had its critics. The private-lending lobby inundated Capitol Hill with its representatives. Several Republicans and a few Democrats claimed a "government takeover." It's nothing of the sort.

In 1965, the federal government wanted to make more student loans available, so it created incentives for private lenders — giving them subsidies and assuming the risks for repayment. But private lenders abused the process, charging high fees and paying off colleges to steer students their way.

By 1992, when former President Bill Clinton started streamlining the loan program, the federal government was spending $6 billion a year for $15 billion in loans. The new legislation completely eliminates the middleman, now freeing up $9 billion in annual subsidies for better uses.

That's change we can believe in.

Reach Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at cynthia@ajc.com; follow her blog at blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.