Backlash brews over rising cost of college

Anew, feisty mood appears to be developing in Congress toward higher education, a quest for accountability on cost and quality not seen in recent memory.

Take Howard "Buck" McKeon. For years, the Republican congressman from California has watched the price of higher education race ahead of inflation, and he aims to slow it down - somehow.

In March, he floated the idea of a new college-affordability index that would track tuition increases. Any institutions that raised tuition more than twice the rate of inflation two years in a row would see their eligibility cut for federal student aid.

His idea elicited instant howls from higher-education lobby groups, some raising the specter of colleges going bankrupt. The American Council on Education warned "price controls" would damage quality by forcing program cuts and would make the public think there is "a free lunch."

But Representative McKeon is undeterred - and in a position to do something. As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce subcommittee that oversees higher-education funding, he plans to unveil his College Affordability Act as soon as July. It will be part of the Higher Education Act, which allocates federal funding and is scheduled for reauthorization in the fall, a committee spokesman says. Tuition costs are crucial, because if they continue to rise, he says, access to college will be effectively cut off for many Americans.

"For the decade that I have been in Congress, I have heard people on all sides of the issue talk about making college more affordable for American families - with little result," McKeon said in a March speech. "Talk is cheap and legislation has been toothless. A 25 percent increase in tuition and fees is not reasonable, it is scandalous. And we can no longer sit idly by and accept such increases as the natural course of things."

McKeon is not alone. Some in Congress favor institutional report cards, others would link minimum graduation rates to grant aid, and still others would test college students to ensure quality. The White House wants to monitor graduation rates - as does Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut. That kind of bipartisan support is rare.

Until recently, Americans had seemed fairly happy with higher education. Unlike the heavily criticized K-12 system, higher ed has long been praised for its quality, access, and affordability. The prevailing public sentiment has been: If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

But that view may be starting to change - and tuition hikes may be the reason. They were overlooked during the 1990s, when incomes were also rising. Higher education's sales pitch - "If you want to succeed in life, go to college" - got through.

College-participation rates have soared. Classrooms are bulging. Now the economy is declining and states are cutting higher-education funding. Tuition at public universities now is racing far ahead of inflation.

But some, like McKeon, point out that even during the 1990s, when private endowments and state funding were flush, tuition was leaping ahead, too. Average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions rose 51 percent compared to 35 percent for private four-year colleges, according to the College Board. Since 1980, public and private four-year college tuitions have risen twice as fast as inflation.

The tuition button is stuck in the "up-fast" position, says Scott Ross, executive director of the Florida Student Association. His group, affiliated with the US Student Association in Washington, represents more than 250,000 Florida college students at 10 of 11 public institutions in that state.

"You're talking about monumental increases in the cost of education," he says. "Here in Florida, we've seen undergraduate tuition increase more than 39 percent since 1995." In addition, he says, book prices are up 34 percent, and room and board is up 54 percent.

Public outrage over costs is not hot yet, but is beginning to be felt, says John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow with Public Agenda. He sees potential for rising college tuition to become a populist issue.

He cites a spate of reports questioning whether access to college is being undercut by rising tuition. The public now understands access is vital because it is the ticket to a knowledge-based job and a middle-class lifestyle. A 1999 poll showed 78 percent of Americans "strongly agreed" that the price should not prevent students from going to college.

"Those red flags could go up now for higher education just the way they did for K-12 in this country," says Dr. Immerwahr. "They haven't yet. But they could. Business leaders are already upset over the quality problems, and now Congress is too." If economic times get tougher, it would take little for the public to become engaged, even outraged, he says.

Education leaders say tuition increases are a result of state cuts in higher-education allocations - since tuitions are boosted to make up the difference. But such arguments may not matter much to the public if costs cut them off from access to college, Immerwahr says.

"If you squeeze something that's important to people - and this is their ticket to middle class - if you prevent them from getting that, tell them that their kids can't go to college, they'll fight," he says.

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