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