A Fair and Balanced Report
Stanley O. Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois, is now
president of the American Council on Education.
THE MEMBERS of the National Commission on the Cost
of Higher Education deserve our thanks. The final report, “Straight Talk About College
Costs and Prices,” is thoughtful. It is useful. It is fair and balanced. And I hope
it will receive careful attention from the academic community.
The assignment and the context in which the Commission’s work was carried out were
less than optimum. The Congress appointed ten members (Secretary Riley was the eleventh).
This small group, with an even smaller staff, had a grand total of 90 days in which
to complete their work—although the grace of the holiday period provided effectively
In the legislation creating the Commission, Congress identified the issues, topics
and questions to be addressed, as well as the basic framework within which Commission
members would function. In short, the Commission operated under some very real constraints.
The task itself was not simple. The financing of higher education—who pays, who benefits,
how the enterprise is managed—is about as complex as any issue I can imagine. And
yet, the Commission members were able to cut through most of this to frame their
observations and recommendations in ways that will be useful to institutions, to
the Congress, and ultimately to students and parents.
Let’s step back and ask, Where did the impetus for the creation of a Commission come
from? In a sense the answer is so obvious we often fail to ask the question. Any
president who is not aware of the public’s concern for college costs and prices leads
a sheltered life or simply isn’t paying attention. In a recent American Council on
Education (ACE) survey, college and university presidents told us that managing college
costs was the one issue, more than any other, that kept them awake nights.
Some of the reasons for the public’s concern are self-evident. The fact is, over
the last decade or more, tuition in public and private colleges and universities
has increased more rapidly than most other prices, including the Consumer Price Index,
and more rapidly than average family income. Over this period, the media have found
it most profitable to focus on the highest priced, most visible and most highly selective
institutions in the nation because these examples produce the most sensational stories.
The result has been a poorly informed but increasingly concerned public.
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