IN recent weeks, a sniping war over rising college costs has been taking place on opinion pages around the country. The characters are familiar: Secretary of Education William Bennett and fiscal conservatives on the one hand; college administrators on the other. At issue is public trust in colleges.
Secretary Bennett points out that between 1980 and 1985, average college costs - tuition, room and board - increased 56.8 percent, while the Consumer Price Index, a standard measure of inflation, increased only 25.6 percent. At the same time, federal outlays for student aid increased 5 percent, contrary to popular belief. Colleges are not underfunded, as administrators often charge, but ``under-accountable, and under-productive,'' Bennett says. The amount of money spent on colleges is ``staggering'' - 40 percent of all education spending. He asks: Why should colleges hold down costs if administrators know the federal government will increase aid?
College administrators counter by saying, yes, higher education is expensive. In recent years, colleges have had to make up for losses incurred by double-digit inflation and high energy costs in the late 1970s: Faculty salaries had lost their earning power and college buildings were in disrepair. The costs of science and technology programs are enormous, as are efforts to computerize campuses.
Further, Bennett's market analysis is not appropriate to colleges, said University of Rochester president Dennis O'Brien in the New York Times. Education is not an industry - does not respond directly to market demands, he notes. Plato, music, and theoretical physics are not job-related subjects - but are still necessary. ``Exotic research requires equipment one usually can't get at Kmart,'' Dr. O'Brien says.
Given the political climate of fiscal restraint, experts say the college cost debate may soon turn from sniping into full-scale war - especially as the effectiveness and quality of colleges comes under further scrutiny.
The Department of Education has already begun to provide ammunition for the war. Last week it sent out a 10-page digest titled ``Background Information on Higher Education Costs'' that offers statistics and information challenging the rationale for increased college costs. The underlying theme of the study is summed up by economist Howard Bowen, who says the economic behavior of colleges is dominated by three rules: 1.``Each institution raises all the money it can''; 2.``Each institution spends all it raises''; and 3.``The cumulative effect ... is toward ever-increasing expenditures.''
The study pointed out that costs have risen 25 percent faster than all services and 9 percent faster than medical care, despite an overall increase in enrollment since 1975, increased endowments, and $15 billion per year of federal aid.
Some colleges have begun to fight back. In an unusual move Wednesday, Princeton University ``opened its books'' to 10 education writers in an effort to explain why its $17,000 annual tuition was not wasteful.
While Princeton is one of only 80 (out of 3,000) colleges that cost more than $10,000 a year to attend, its recent increases were typical: faculty salary, physical plant, and heavy expenditures in sciences and libraries. The cost of science alone between 1980 and 1990 - buildings, equipment, and faculty start-up - will be $140 million; library expenditures last year were $4,900 per pupil; computer costs were $1,330 per pupil.
``We can't be compared to General Motors,'' said provost Neil Rudenstine. ``We don't have a fixed product, like a car, that we continually make cheaper. We are part of the knowledge explosion that has become very powerful and sophisticated. Work in microbiology, exploring the cosmos - that's costly. We're talking about the central mission of the college - expansive learning. That's important for individuals, and society. We aren't just training people for jobs.''
Vice-provost Richard Spies pointed out that the gap between college costs and inflation is not new. The pattern has been the same since 1948. Between 1966 and 1971, for example, college costs rose 41.8 percent while the Consumer Price Index rose 25.6 percent. But today, median family income is down. From 1948-73, the percentage increase in median family income exceeded the percentage increase in college costs. Today, income lags well behind. Yet Americans still expect a high standard of living while paying for high-quality schooling, Princeton officials said.
Furthermore, Dr. Rudenstine pointed out, colleges can't be directed by the whims of student interest. It is folly to close down a department that will cost ``two to three times more to reopen.'' (Princeton has, however, eliminated two departments - Slavic languages and statistics - in an effort to economize.)
The East Asian studies department at Princeton is an example of maintaining top quality despite low enrollment. Only five undergraduates major in Japanese or Chinese history and language. Yet the department has 17 faculty and a separate library. The cost: $2.5 million a year.
``We feel it's important to have people going into the State Department and into business who know about Japan,'' says Rudenstine. ``Is it worth it? You decide.''
Still, as the debate continues, colleges will have to answer some hard questions: The rubric of ``new knowledge'' can cover a multitude of sins. As Frank Rhodes, president of Cornell, recently said: ``How many more studies of deconstructionist literary theory do we really need?'' Other questions: How are faculty - now averaging only 6 to 9 hours' class-time per week - assessed for quality work and research? How much funding of graduate departments within colleges is taken up by undergraduate fees?
What next? Princeton president William Bowen says ``the one area we really deserve criticism in'' is that not enough studies have been done to ``lead us to solve'' the cost and debt problem.