Parents, Legislators Ask Why College Tuition Keeps Rising

Question: What do these items have in common? Hair dryers, restaurant-quality dorm food, faculty salaries, designer student services, and penny-pinching legislatures.

Answer: They're all reasons colleges and universities cite for again hiking tuition and fees above the inflation rate.

American undergraduates will pay about 5 percent more this year than last for tuition and fees at a four-year college, according to the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges, released last week. Inflation is sputtering along at 2.2 percent.

Adjusting for inflation, college tuition has jumped a whopping 90 percent over the past 15 years - higher than health care. Meanwhile, family income increased by only 9 percent over the same period.

The good news is that the current increase isn't quite as steep as in years past, and that there's some $55 billion in aid from government and institutional sources to help pay for it. Congress also recently passed new tax breaks to help families keep up with higher college costs.

But parents and legislators are demanding answers of their own for the big price hikes. The average four-year private college costs $19,213; the average four-year public university, $7,472.

"We want to make sure that college parents have a voice in ensuring that for every dollar put into tuition, there is a dollar of value," says Richard Flaherty, director of College Parents of America. The Arlington, Va.,-based group was formed five months ago to lobby for more accountability in higher education.

"Value has to be given for the increase in dollars above the rate of inflation," he adds.

Russ Cargo, a member of College Parents of America and a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., worries that his own nearly college-aged daughters might be priced out of a high-quality education: "I'm seriously concerned about the choices they will have simply because of the costs of higher education. Universities have taken on so many different activities that aren't related directly to the educational experience that it's easy to see why costs got so high."

Colleges insist that many of these activities, such as wiring dorms for access to the Internet, are necessary to attract good students, and that they are making new efforts to hold down costs.

"For most Americans, college is still accessible - especially in the light of financial aid currently available," says College Board President Donald Steward.

"Focusing too much on the highest-priced institutions overstates the problem and unduly alarms the public," he adds. A majority of students at four-year colleges and universities pay less than $4,000 per year for tuition and fees.

The key is for parents to view college education as a lifetime investment and plan early, he adds. At least 20 states have enacted legislation to encourage parents to save for higher education.

But Republicans lawmakers in Congress say it's time to take a closer look at college-cost creep. Last May, Rep. Howard McKeon of California called for linking the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which includes some $30 billion in federal financial aid to students, to good-faith cost-cutting measures.

Toward that end, Congress created a national commission to report on the cost of higher education by January 1998. The seven-member commission is looking especially into the costs of high-priced research centers, big bureaucracies, and the "cumbersome and overregulated federal financial-aid system," say commission staff members.

The commission is also looking into cost-cutting measures such as distance learning.

Bennington College, which was the most expensive college in the nation in the 1980s and early '90s, isn't waiting for the report.

"We could no longer afford to be the most expensive college in the nation," says Mike Leary, spokesman for the Bennington, Vt., school. "The more you charge in tuition, the more financial aid you have to come up with."

In 1994, Bennington's Board of Trustees launched a college-wide restructuring program to control costs, with a goal of dropping the cost of tuition by 10 percent by 2000. The college cut 27 teachers, or about one-third of the faculty, rehired "teacher-practitioners," and froze tuition for two years.

Bennington weathered a sharp dropoff in students in 1995, in part to protest the cutbacks in favorite programs or faculty. But enrollments are back up in '97. "We dropped from No. 1 to No. 74 in the rankings [of most expensive colleges]. But we are still No. 8 in best campus food," says Mr. Leary, citing a recent Princeton Review poll.

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