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The Cost of Higher Education
National commission does an about face

By William Trombley
and Kristin D. Conklin

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a draft makes.

The final report of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, approved at a January 21 meeting in Washington, D.C. has a very different tone from the draft report that was circulated late last fall.

The earlier version began with the ringing declaration, "as a public good, higher education, far from being expensive, is priceless." The final report is less stentorian: "The Commission is convinced that American higher education remains an extraordinary value."

Last fall's draft acknowledged public "sticker shock" over rapidly rising tuition and other costs but said most students were still getting a bargain. "Three-quarters of all full-time undergraduate students attend four-year colleges that charge less than $8,000 a year in tuition, about what a decent used car would cost," it said.

This unfortunate analogy, which was widely reported, has disappeared from the final document.

The November draft blamed the news media for much of the public's concern about high prices. "Sensational reporting has both heightened and distorted public concern," it said at one point and, at another, "damaging, too, are editorials that proclaim, and usually denounce, costs that are (to pick a few common phrases), 'out of hand,' 'beyond reason,' and 'threatening to put a college education beyond the reach of most Americans.'"

All of this has disappeared from the final version, which says, mildly, "Although concerns and perceptions about price are not entirely wrong, they are not always based on sound factual information."

There was very little criticism of colleges and universities in the November draft but the final version acknowledges that the institutions themselves have played an important role in the price run-up.

"Most academic institutions have been content to maintain a veil of obscurity over their financial operations and have yet to confront seriously basic strategies for reducing their costs," the final report says. "Unless academic institutions attend to these problems now, policy makers at both the state and federal levels will impose unilateral solutions that are likely to be heavy-handed and regulatory."

What happened between November and January to change the tone from a polemic in defense of rising tuitions and other college costs to a gentle prod to educators to do a better job of explaining why prices increases are needed?

Most importantly, the two Republican congressmen responsible for creating the commission-William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon of California-sharply criticized the November draft report.

"Any suggestion that we do not have a college-cost crisis in higher education flies in the face of common sense," the two lawmakers said in a joint statement. "Every American family knows that college costs are too high."

Since Goodling and McKeon will play key roles in Congressional action to extend the Higher Education Act next year, their words carried great weight with the 11 members of the commission, nine of whom are either higher education administrators or lobbyists who work with colleges and universities. Quickly, the commission's rhetoric became more subdued.

The final report notes that tuition charges at public colleges and universities more than doubled between 1987 and 1996-from $1,688 to $3,918-and almost doubled at private four-year institutions-from $6,665 to $13,250.

"Public anxiety about college prices has risen along with increases in tuition," it states.

There is a lot of discussion about the "price" students pay to go to college and the "costs" of educating them once they are on campus. Prices have risen faster than costs, according to the report, largely because state appropriations for higher education declined sharply in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The document lists many factors that might have increased the cost of running a college or a university-from the need to provide more remedial classes to the "rising expectations" of faculty members, students and their parents-but then concludes that it is "difficult to draw direct relationships between any of the cost drivers·and increases in tuition."

In part, the commission's inability to figure out what is driving up college costs is blamed on the unwillingness of many academic institutions to "make themselves more transparent, to explain their finances."

Whereas the November draft blamed the news media, politicians and accrediting agencies, among others, for confusing the public about college costs, the final report places some of the blame on colleges and universities themselves for being financially "opaque."

In both versions, the public is portrayed as baffled and angry but unable to grasp the finer points of higher education finance.

The report recommends that "academic institutions must achieve more in the way of cost containment and productivity improvement" but is light on specific suggestions.

Many of the report's recommendations ask for less federal and state regulation of higher education, for a streamlined student financial aid system and for accrediting procedures that do not drive up costs. However, the report does not suggest that, even if all of these things were done, the impact on tuition and other college costs would be very significant.

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