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An Interview: Howard "Buck" McKeon

Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-California) heads the education subcommittee that will shepherd the Higher Education Reauthorization Act through Congress later this year. He also intends to introduce a bill designed to curtail the rising cost of higher education. McKeon, a former western wear retailer, was first elected to the House in 1992. This interview took place in his office on Capitol Hill, and was conducted by freelance writer Ron Feemster, a frequent contributor to National CrossTalk.

Ron Feemster: About five years ago you helped create a commission to study the cost of higher education. The commission concluded that tuition costs were rising too fast. At the time you called on colleges and universities to take voluntary measures to control tuition prices in higher education. Now it would appear that you are going to make higher education institutions accountable, using a bill that threatens schools with a loss of federal funding if they do not keep tuition prices in line with inflation. What happened in the interim to lead you to threaten schools with price controls?

Howard "Buck" McKeon: Colleges and universities kept increasing their tuition. That's what happened. You know I don't call this "price controls." I'm a Republican. I'm a conservative. I don't follow having price controls. What we are talking about is coming up with a bill that will let the universities and colleges control their costs. And if they don't do it, we will have to see about some other measures. So the bill we are talking about-one part of the bill, the affordability index-says that if you raise your tuition and fees more than twice the rate of inflation two years in a row, you will have to explain to the Department (of Education) why. If you continue and do it a third year, then we will look at some kind of sanctions.

RF: You have been fairly specific in what you think those kind of sanctions are going to be-withdrawing federal funding from the schools who don't keep a tight rein on tuition.

BM: Right now we contribute about thirty percent of revenue to higher education. And so sometimes I think we are an accomplice in helping them raise their fees, which drives some people out of higher education. We get statistics that say that about 40 percent of people who are qualified to go are not able to go to a college or university because of the cost. That's after we've increased Pell Grants from $2,000 to $4,050 on my watch as chairman.

We've increased other college student aid. We've been putting in more and more money at the federal level. We've driven interest rates down to make student loans more affordable. But colleges keep raising their tuition and fees, and the states have been lowering their contribution. We think that we all need to come together. We need the feds, the schools, parents and the states. Everybody has to get involved with the solution to this problem.

RF: But if you cut someone off from federal funding...

BM: We're not cutting anybody off. They will make that decision. The schools need to come to the table and look at their costs.

RF: What if a school thinks it can no longer offer the level of product they feel they have to offer at the price that the federal government requires?

BM: Wait a minute. The federal government is a partner in this. We're putting in a lot of money. I remember one of my critics saying something about how this is free enterprise. You know the way I look at free enterprise. When I was in business before I came to Congress, I paid 35 to 40 percent of my profits to the federal government. The schools receive money. That's a little difference. So if we're going to be sending money, maybe we should have a voice in what they do with that money.

The schools aren't my enemy. The schools are doing a great service. And they need to do it. But what they need to be doing is to watch their costs. To have sufficient controls so that the 40 percent of young people who can't get into college just because of cost would have a shot at it.

RF: Tell me in a little more detail how this program will work. When are you going to introduce the bill?

BM: We don't have a definite time frame. We'll be holding hearings first. We've just talked about one thing: the affordability index. There are other things we're gong to do in the bill, too. We want to see what we can do to cut back federal regulation. If they can show us things that are driving up costs that come from the federal government, let us take a whack at that. Let us see if we can cut out those things. I want to help them cut costs, not increase costs.

Anything creative that we can do. We need to come together and not be confrontational about this. We need to come together and say what can we do to keep these rates down so that we can broaden access so that this 40 percent that can't now get into a college or university can get into a school.

RF: What do you see as federal regulations that you could eliminate? Certainly people have come to you asking to get rid of this or that regulation.

BM: We put in a bill that we call FEDUP, because we have 800 pages of federal regulation that deal with higher education. So I contacted all of the schools, and we got over 3,000 responses from schools about things they would like to see cut out or eliminated or simplified. We put it into a bill that was non-controversial and bipartisan. When we got to the final markup the other side had a lot of amendments and we had to pull the bill back.

RF: It seems to me that you are being a slight bit disingenuous not to say that there is a price-control element of this bill. You can say it's somebody's choice if they want to wear a parachute when they are sky-diving...

BM: I guess you could say that. I would choose a parachute. However, there is a little difference. If I'm jumping out of a plane, and I have a choice of parachute or no parachute, the choice is pretty simple. But schools have more choices. At this point there is no reason for them to keep their costs under control. I'm hoping that we can get enough focus on the problem that they will be able to find adequate ways to keep their tuition increases in line so that they can expand access.

RF: Five or six years ago, after the cost commission's report appeared, you were calling for colleges to take voluntary measures to control costs. Now you are increasing the pressure on them-increasing the incentive for them to cut costs.

BM: That's it. It's a good incentivising program. I was in the western wear business when Nixon imposed price controls in the 1970s. What they said was everything has to stay at the price that you're selling it now until we give you approval to raise the prices. One of the big items that we carried, the most popular item, was Levi's 501 blue jeans with the little red tag on the back. The government said we have to sell those at a certain price. Levi Strauss said we can't make money doing that so we won't make many of those. Eventually Levi's would get approval for the price to go up two dollars, and then they'd make some more. Price controls didn't do anything.

That's not what we're looking for. What we're looking for are some real sincere efforts to make college affordable for all of our population. Everybody should have the opportunity. The federal role in education is to expand access.

RF: The higher education community is very diverse. Some institutions receive much more federal funding than others. Do you think you have a one-size-fits-all solution? Or do you think you will have to modify this to accommodate different schools?

BM: I don't know. That's why we'll hold hearings and get input from people. We've got to have the debate. I've said a lot of times that one size doesn't fit all, that you can't solve the problems out of Washington. However, they keep coming to us for solutions, and the only solution they want is more money. Someone has to pay that. We pay it out of taxes. And the people who can't go to school pay it out of lost opportunities.

Photo by Dennis Brack, BlackStar, for CrossTalk

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