Congress Questions Rising College Prices

Lawmakers want to use federal-aid reauthorization to gain some leverage over tuitions

In the last 20 years, Americans have dramatically changed how they bank, shop, produce steel, and build a car. How they go about getting a college education has changed far less - it's just gotten a lot more expensive.

One reason higher education has avoided the restructuring that has swept much of US industry is that families have been willing to pay soaring college costs, and taxpayers have been willing to subsidize them.

But with a new wave of tuition price hikes all but inevitable, this may be about to change.

Before congressmen sign off on some $40 billion for higher education, including the federal student-loan program, they want to be sure that colleges and universities are making higher education affordable.

Lawmakers want to use this year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to get some leverage on college tuitions, which have risen faster than the cost of educating a student and significantly faster than the public's ability to pay.

Tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, for example, increased 234 percent from 1980 to 1995, while median household income rose only 82 percent, according to a 1996 report by the General Accounting Office.

Polls show that the public worries that the price of a college education will soon be out of reach.

Special commission

Citing such concerns, Congress set up a special commission to recommend ways to cut college costs. The report by the 11-member National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education was expected by Dec. 11, but was delayed after an unusually public blowout between the commission and Republican sponsors.

Lawmakers didn't like the commission's draft report, which argued that the cost crisis was exaggerated and that government should not try to regulate it. They wanted more hard-hitting recommendations on issues such as faculty workload and administrative costs.

"We want to remind the commission of its legislative mandate to investigate the rising costs of higher education - not to engage in a debate over whether there is a cost crisis. Any suggestion that we don't have a crisis flies in the face of common sense," said Rep. Bill Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania and Rep. Howard McKeon (R) of California, key commission sponsors, in a Dec. 2 statement.

"The more money we put into the system, the higher college tuition seems to climb. Instead of taking a hard look at their costs, colleges are passing them along to the taxpayer," adds Jay Diskey, spokesman for the Committee on Education and the Workforce, which Mr. Goodling heads. "The public is losing its patience with this; and I know that Congress is. This is higher education's last chance to regulate itself."

While commissioners, many of whom are college presidents, insist that price controls or the "heavy hand of government" will not solve the problem, they agree that "if we don't get better, someone else will step in and force us to get better."

"We're making changes [in the draft report], and the next version will be extremely different," says commission policy analyst Christopher Simmons.

College prices have been rising faster than the real costs of educating a student, according to new estimates prepared for the commission. The cost per student in four-year public colleges and universities increased 57 percent from 1987 to 1996, while tuition jumped 132 percent.

To the public, this looks like price gouging, and colleges have done little to explain their costs or pricing decisions. They need to make information on issues such as faculty workload and administrative costs "less opaque" if they want to win back public confidence, commissioners say.

Factors commissioners cite as driving up costs include: government regulations, increased specialization in academic disciplines, professional accre- ditation, ever newer and bigger facilities, and investments in technology, especially computers.

One problem is that many colleges now aim for prestige as research centers, at a time when the real public need may be to better teach basic skills. "Families are paying for institutional ambition," says Barry Munitz, vice chairman of the commission and chancellor of California State University at Long Beach.

Rethinking, restructuring

The cost of new technology also routinely jumps 10 to 20 percent a year in college budgets, commissioners say. "We're headed into a decade of investment in technology that is going to be massive. Technology has not cut our costs, and I don't think it will," says commissioner Clare Cotton, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

Critics argue that to use technology effectively, colleges are going to have to rethink what professors do in the classroom - and there is deep resistance to such restructuring in higher education.

"As long as technology is just layered onto traditional academic models, it will increase costs. Universities need to experiment with more cost-effective uses of technology, but to do so is to take on the faculty, and there's lots of resistance and fear," says Robert Edgerton, director of educational programs for the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts.

For example, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., created studio courses for introductory physics, chemistry, and math classes. Students spent less time in direct contact with faculty and more time using computers. "Learning increased, and costs decreased," says Mr. Edgerton. "There have been few other takers for such ideas, because college presidents fear that unions will not allow them," he adds.

The final commission report will include examples of colleges and universities that are successfully cutting costs, such as Michigan State, which now guarantees freshmen that tuition will rise no higher than the rate of inflation. The report is expected near the end of this month.

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