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"Neither Bold nor Illuminating"

By Ron Cowell

Ron Cowell is the Democratic chair of the education committee in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Ron Cowell
STATE POLICY MAKERS who hoped to learn from the report of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education must be disappointed. Officials concerned about the affordability of higher education received little new information and few suggestions for state-level action from the Commission.

The "Straight Talk" section of the report is neither bold nor illuminating. The comments repeat information and statistics available elsewhere, but offer no conclusions when discussing affordability. Disappointingly, the Commission says it believes "institutions themselves should explain to the public" why "tuition appears to have increased faster than institutional costs in all types of colleges and universities." Some expected the Commission would shed light on this fundamental question.

The title of the "Cost and Price Drivers" section appears to promise some analysis of factors that contribute to rising college costs, but there follows only a general discussion of factors already widely acknowledged. Even here, the report is timid about ascribing cost. We are told the cost of educating part-time and older students "could be increasing costs." Increasing accessibility for students with disabilities is a "potential cost driver." The need to employ more administrators "is thought to drive up administrative costs." Altogether, there is little here to guide policy.

Other comments are less tentative but neither compelling nor analytical. Noting growth in the number and types of regulations affecting colleges and universities, the Report says that "complying with these regulations costs money" and cites one statistic from one school to make its case.

The report is helpful in stating what influences have not been at work. The Commission concludes that federal grants do not drive up costs or prices and there is no conclusive evidence that loans have contributed to rising costs and prices. There is little evidence that changes in faculty hiring practices or workload have driven up costs in the past decade. There is no evidence that the use of technology has resulted in widespread savings to schools.

The "five key convictions" of the Commission seem more obvious than profound. Lawmakers know the "concern about rising college prices is real" and that there is concern "about where higher education places its priorities." We already understand that "rising costs are just as troubling a policy issue as rising prices" and that among the public and some policy makers there is "confusion about cost and price." And it will surprise nobody that "the United States has a world-class system of higher education."

To be fair, the Commission may have responded fully to its charge from the Congress. My lament is that the report is a missed opportunity to inform state lawmakers and the public on this important subject.

  Related information
  A Short History of the Cost Commission
The recommendations in the "Action Agenda" provide suggestions for all stakeholders to consider, including a few directed to state policy makers. Although predicated on a view of shared responsibility, the major thrust of the recommendations places the onus on the higher education community itself to control costs and prices.

This approach places primary responsibility where it always has been, without giving policy makers, students, parents and taxpayers good reason to believe the results will be any different than we currently experience. In effect, the Commission asks policy makers, higher education consumers and the public to all "do more, make sacrifices, and work harder" but patiently depend upon higher education institutions themselves to ensure that our society will maintain access to higher education at a reasonable price.

There is little reason for confidence in this approach. For state lawmakers who are directly or indirectly responsible for public colleges and universities where 78 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled, it is not sufficient. Our constituents –education consumers and taxpayers alike–are demanding attention to the rising price of public-sector tuition now.

The recommendations do include suggestions the Congress should heed. Although the practical options available to Congress to affect the cost and price of higher education are limited, the impact of Congressional attention can be significant.

At the state level, however, there is a greater responsibility and opportunity to influence higher education price and cost. State policy makers have more ability and authority to direct or influence the activities and priorities of colleges and universities. The Commission unfortunately failed to make observations and suggestions that would help to further inform state-level policy discussions about these issues.

Any discussion about state initiatives that affect higher education cost and price must first acknowledge that each state has its own unique context in which it considers these issues.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly, for instance, this fiscal year appropriated more than $1.6 billion to support higher education. Most of this funding was allocated to public colleges and universities, but included $108 million for private institutions and $250 million for the financial need-based student grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

  Related information
  Chart comparing Congressional Requests with the work of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education
These general subsidies to institutions, with little else in the form of statutory or regulatory requirements and expectations, mean that state policy makers in Pennsylvania have minimal influence on how colleges and universities actually use public funds or otherwise establish their priorities.

One conclusion is likely to be drawn from our Pennsylvania circumstances. In 1996—97, Pennsylvania ranked ninth in the nation with state higher education appropriations totaling $1.652 billion. Yet per capita expenditures of $136.86 ranked our state just 47th nationally. Not surprising then, the average price for tuition and fees at Pennsylvania’s public four-year institutions was the second highest in the country. Few disagree that relatively modest appropriations have contributed to the relatively high sticker price in the public sector.

Policy makers can do more than reduce sticker prices with general subsidies or reduce net cost to students through individual grants. This requires an alignment of policies with expectations. It also requires us to consider all of the levers at our disposal to influence the cost and price of higher education.

Policy makers also should consider the entire range of policy levers available to constructively influence the priorities and practices of higher education, especially public institutions. Statutory or regulatory policy can prescribe or proscribe institutional action. Reporting requirements or other steps to ensure public scrutiny can have strategic value. Enhancing the marketplace or empowering the consumer can likewise be effective.

A strategy that provides for the identification of priorities, aligns funding to those priorities, and evaluates results will require a new philosophy and process in many states.

The National Commission did make useful suggestions to the higher education community that should be encouraged by state policy makers as well. Although there may be skepticism about the adoption and implementation of these recommendations by colleges and universities, state policy makers should consider how they can support the most promising suggestions for cost and price control.

In each case, these are institutional actions which might be prompted or otherwise supported by the array of policy levers at the disposal of state lawmakers. State action to support these initiatives at the institution level would be a significant consequence of the Commission’s work and assist efforts by state lawmakers to effectively promote the public interest objective of affordable higher education for all citizens.

Photo by David Fetter for CrossTalk

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