"Neither Bold nor Illuminating"
Ron Cowell is the Democratic chair of the education committee in the Pennsylvania
House of Representatives.
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
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.
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