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A Crisis in College Costs

By Bill Goodling

Bill Goodling, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Bill Goodling
PUTTING MONEY AWAY for college is a fact of life for most families with children. There is no question that higher education is one of the very best investments a family can make, but it also is one of the most expensive. And, it is costing more all the time.

When I return to my district in southeastern Pennsylvania each weekend, one of the first questions constituents ask me is what Congress will do to help ensure that higher education will be an affordable option in their children’s future.

Their concerns are legitimate. To say that the cost of attending college is not spiraling out of control flies in the face of common sense. While taming inflation has been one of the great national achievements of the last ten years, from 1987 to 1996 college costs grew by 132 percent at four-year public universities and by 99 percent at private four-year institutions.

If this trend is allowed to continue, college will no longer be an option for most American families. And while costs have stabilized slightly in the past three years, the tuition prices are still increasing at twice and three times the rate of inflation.

Quite simply, there is a crisis in the cost of higher education. It must be dealt with now to preserve families’ access to the best higher academic system in the world.

Other statistics offer a critical snapshot of how the college cost crisis continues to grow. For example, from 1992 to 1993, some 46 percent of college students took out loans to pay their tuition bills, according to the General Accounting Office. By 1995 to 1996, that number had increased to 60 percent. Over the same period, the average amount borrowed grew from $10,080 to $13,269 when adjusted for inflation.

What can be done to reduce the skyrocketing growth of college tuition and make higher education more affordable? Last year, my committee and then Congress moved forward to create the Commission on the Cost of Higher Education to help answer this question. It was tasked with reporting back on real, concrete steps to reduce cost growth. Importantly, most of the Commission’s members were recruited from the higher education community.

After much hard work and serious discussion, the Commission produced a series of recommendations for Congress, the Department of Education and, above all, colleges and universities themselves.

  Related information
  A Short History of the Cost Commission
The Commission found that one of the largest obstacles to tackling the problem of tuition inflation is the lack of information available. For such a large investment, families should have access to the latest statistics on what their money–often decades of savings–is buying.

Congress should be the public’s watchdog by performing oversight reviews and holding hearings on rising college costs. Congress should require the General Accounting Office to issue a yearly report on cost increases. Such a report would provide a credible, independent analysis to help evaluate the cost of attending college.

The Commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education coordinate this effort by working with colleges and universities to develop a clear set of standards for reporting costs and prices. By providing a clear understanding, government can help parents become better shoppers for perhaps the most expensive purchase of their lives.

I think other concrete steps should be taken immediately to help alleviate the cost crisis. Colleges and universities, Congress and the Clinton Administration should view these items as “required coursework,” and should be held accountable by the American public.

Colleges and Universities should:

  • Redouble efforts to control costs and increase institutional productivity. No one wins if colleges and universities price themselves out of the market.
  • Rethink accreditation with a focus on outputs, not just inputs. A well coordinated, efficient accrediting process would relate institutional productivity to effectiveness in improving student learning.
  • Address the tenure issue. They should study and consider alternative approaches to collegiate instruction that might improve productivity and efficiency.
  • Share facilities in order to cut costs and increase efficiency. They also should look into various partnerships to maximize cost savings through joint campus purchases of goods and services.
  • Cut inefficient and redundant programs. For example, colleges and universities should make greater use of consortia and joint planning to provide increased access to expensive academic programs.

    Congress should:

  • Eliminate burdensome federal regulations. We should require the General Accounting Office to report on the extent to which federal regulations impose unnecessary costs on colleges and universities.
  • Examine changes to federal law that would allow more flexibility for colleges and universities to offer early retirement incentives to tenured faculty.
  • Update and modernize the student financial aid delivery system. Congress should conduct oversight of the Department of Education to ensure that the delivery of federal student financial assistance meets the demands of the 21st century.
  • Pass H.R. 2356 to modernize the federal financial aid program. This bill would bring the best practices of the private financial services industry to direct student lending.

    The Clinton Administration and Department of Education should:

  • Call on colleges to cut costs and prices. To date, the Administration has responded to the cost crisis only by calling for more student aid. That’s only a part of the equation. The Administration and the Department of Education should insist on affordability and accountability.
  • The U.S. Department of Education should fix the Direct Student Loan Program. The Department of Education must work to lower student default rates, cut red tape, improve internal management systems and eliminate the potential for total program failure, as with the loan consolidation program.

      Related information
      Chart comparing Congressional Requests with the work of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education
    These recommendations are only the starting point. However, they are specific, doable and intended to achieve specific cost-saving results. Now that the Commission has made its report, it is incumbent upon everyone–colleges and universities, this Congress and the Clinton Administration–to begin to implement its recommendations.

    Not only does our nation have the best system of postsecondary education in the world; it has the best higher education system the world has ever had. Surely, such a system also can analyze its costs and bring them under control.

    The Commission’s recommendations provide an opportunity for colleges and universities to demonstrate leadership and accountability to the American public. As the Commission said in its final report: “Although the responsibility of controlling costs and prices is widely shared, the major onus rests with the higher education community itself.”

Photo by John Harrington / Blackstar

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