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A Fair and Balanced Report

By Stanley O. Ikenberry

Stanley O. Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois, is now president of the American Council on Education.

Stanley IkenberryTHE 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 another month.

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.

  Related information
  A Short History of the Cost Commission
During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, tuition did increase rapidly for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out. First, during this period, and especially during the recession, many state governments slashed support to public colleges and universities. Some of the cuts were simply absorbed; but some were shifted to students in the form of higher tuition.

At The University of Illinois, for example, to make up for a one percent loss of state support and a state requirement that institutions provide additional student aid, a five percent tuition increase was required. Weakened state support has had a major impact on institutions nationwide.

Second, in private institutions, the major cost driver was rising student aid budgets. As tuition went up in the 1980s, federal and state financial aid programs failed to keep pace, driving up institutional student aid budgets to fill the gap, which in turn put even more pressure on tuition.

While these forces were generally understood (sometimes painfully understood), many in the higher education community failed to appreciate a number of other contributing factors. The world was and is changing.

We have entered an information age in which learning has become much more important, both to the health of the society and to one’s life prospects. We understand that; we make speeches about it. What we may not have appreciated is that the public also understands this, and indeed believes that college is crucially important to success, to achieving an acceptable quality of life.

As a result, the public’s perception that rising tuitions are putting college out of reach—either now or at some future time—is generating a great deal of fear for the future.

Academics also may not have fully realized the vast gap in the public’s knowledge about higher education. ACE has just concluded 16 focus groups and a national survey of 2,000 individuals to assess the public’s knowledge and attitudes about the financing of higher education. The results confirm that most citizens overestimate by thousands of dollars the price of tuition as well as the total cost of attending college. Moreover, the public does not understand where student aid comes from, how much is available, nor whether they or their children might be eligible. Some survey respondents believe only athletes receive financial aid.

  Related information
  Chart comparing Congressional Requests with the work of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education
Further, the public does not understand the vast range of choices and options available in postsecondary education, let alone how to go about making choices among them. Some respondents, for example, thought community colleges were places at which an individual can receive a four-year education in two years.

They were unclear about the difference between public and private higher education; many respondents knew that private colleges are more expensive, but attributed the higher cost to such factors as better faculty and smaller classes. Very few made the connection between state subsidies and public institutions. Some 80 percent of respondents believed colleges and universities make a “profit.”

It was against this backdrop of public (and Congressional) opinion that the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education did its work.

The Commission’s report presents a five-part action agenda that includes recommendations on strengthening institutional cost control, improving market information and public accountability, deregulating higher education, rethinking accreditation and enhancing and simplifying federal student aid.

Also included in the report is a list of additional topics and issues that, due to time constraints, the Commission was not able to fully explore.

In response to the report, ACE and other associations are in the process of developing a comprehensive plan to implement the Commission’s important recommendations.

Furthermore, to assist campuses with the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations, ACE will organize a series of regional meetings to aid college and university officials with their plans to conduct efficiency reviews and to achieve greater fiscal transparency.

We must send the message to the public that campus officials care about students’ and their families’ concerns about college costs; that we will take steps to help them understand their options, the type and amount of aid available, and their eligibility; and most importantly that we are working hard to control costs and keep tuition down.

The higher education community has a responsibility to get this message out and to implement the recommendations of the Commission to ensure access to affordable educational opportunities for all students. We will meet that responsibility.

Photo by John Harrington / Blackstar

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