Controls on College Tuition

A leading GOP spokesman on higher education issues in Congress last week withdrew a bill that would have punished colleges and universities that raise tuition too sharply.

The bill might have pleased parents worried about how to pay for their children's higher education. But trying to control tuition increases from Washington is the wrong solution for the wrong problem.

Most college degrees in the US are still a bargain (and among the best in the world), despite reports of $40,000-a-year costs for an Ivy League education. Overall, tuition growth has been modest since 1968, finds Harvard University economics professor Caroline Minter Hoxby, with the most rapid growth taking place at select, smaller colleges. And much of the tuition pressure at those schools is due to intense competition to attract the brightest students by adding extracurricular activities and perks, or by buying big-name professors for exorbitant pay.

With various types of financial aid available, most students don't pay full tuition these days anyway, just as few car buyers pay a dealer's sticker price.

Still, there's plenty that colleges can do, and are doing, to reduce costs.

Providing incentives for students to graduate within four years (or sooner) would help. Less could be spent on expensive sports teams and big-name coaches. Nearby colleges could cooperate to avoid duplicating basic courses and services. Fewer resources could be given to graduate programs in favor of undergraduate education.

In dropping his bill, Rep. Howard McKeon of California noted how a number of universities have lately tried harder to control costs. The threat of his bill might have encouraged that. But colleges, like their students, are learning to adjust to new demands. And these days, parents of college-bound teens are demanding as much accountability in higher education as in K-12 schools.

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