Maybe the worst article I've ever read on Salon.
When we're in grade school, most of us at some point ask "Why can't the government just print more money, and give that to poor people?"
As adults, most of us understand why this wouldn't work. The government is printing more money to cover the same amount of wealth; the money is therefore worth less; and the price of everything would just go up.
College tuition is exactly the same scenario. The only difference is that in this case, the government is printing a special kind of money -- money that can only be used for one thing. It apparently never occurs to Frank that the price of that thing just goes up accordingly.
Subsidies (i.e., cheap loans) increase demand. Increased demand causes the price to rise.
The US massively subsidizes education. The price of education rises far beyond the rate of inflation.
The US massively subsidizes housing. The price of housing rises far beyond the rate of inflation.
The US massively subsidizes health care. The price of health care rises far beyond the rate of inflation. (Except, of course, the kinds of health care -- like cosmetic surgery or lasik surgery -- that do not typically get subsidized. Costs in these areas have plummeted.)
Pointing this out inevitably draws attacks, like by acknowledging this, you are part of a conspiracy to deny education to poor people. And I don't pretend to have an answer to this dilemma. The only really clear thing is that the laws of supply and demand aren't statutory laws, that can just be altered with a pen and a lot of hand-waving. They are fundamental natural laws, and well-intentioned attempts to manipulate markets (from student loans to price-control regimes) almost always trigger equal and opposite consequences.
The real shame is that important issues like these are so easily demagogued. Even though the system is clearly broken, no politician in his right mind would ever propose changing it. "Look!" Thomas Frank would scream. "He hates poor people!"