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Tuition Inflation
Insiders dominate a national commission on spiraling college costs

By William Doyle and
Kristin D. Conklin

A NATIONAL COMMISSION that is dominated by college and university administrators and lobbyists is expected to report on the rising costs of higher education next month.

When Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, a three-term Republican congressman from Southern California, introduced legislation creating the commission last spring, he noted that tuition at four-year public colleges and universities had increased by 234 percent between 1981 and 1995, while median household income rose only 82 percent.

ãParents, students and policy makers must work together with colleges and universities to slow tuition inflation, or the American Dream is in jeopardy,ä said McKeon, who heads the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training and Lifelong Learning.

He proposed a seven-member commission including people from outside higher education ãwith expertise in the management of business efficiency and cost reduction programs.ä

By the time Congress approved the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education last summer, however, its membership had swelled to 11 and the importance of including non-educators with cost-cutting experience had been de-emphasized.

In fact, all 11 commission members come from higher education. Four are college or university presidents; one is chancellor of a statewide system; four are higher education lobbyists; one is a think tank scholar; and one is a political science professor.

There are no representatives of the community colleges, which enroll 37 percent of the nationâs college students.

Asked if this group, made up largely of insiders, is what he had in mind, Representative McKeon replied, ãThat is one of the critiques I would have made. Everybody had only a few appointments and it fell a little more on people from higher education.ä

But the congressman added, ãIf you look at the previous experience of these people, youâll see that they come from many different backgrounds.ä

With two exceptions, the commissioners do not have impressive credentials as cost cutters. Tuition and fees have increased substantially at almost all of the colleges and universities represented by commission members, and they have increased at a much faster rate than the consumer price index.

For example, Commission Chairman William Troutt is president of Belmont University, a 3,000-student institution in Nashville, Tennessee, where tuition and fees have increased 139 percent over the last decade, from $4,200 in the 1988÷89 academic year to $10,050 this year.

Average annual charges have doubled in the last ten years, from $8,018 to $16,188, at the 55 schools belonging to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, whose president, Clare Cotton, is a commission member.

Student fees have risen from $684 to $1,584 per year since Commissioner Barry Munitz has been chancellor of the 22-campus California State University system. And fees have jumped from $1,662 to $3,744 per year in the last decade at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where Commissioner Blanche Touhill is chancellor.

However, tuition and fee increases have been modest at York College, a liberal arts school in York, Pennsylvania, where Commissioner George Waldner has been president since 1991. Charges were $3,596 in 1988÷89 and they are $5,800 this year.

At the commissionâs first meeting in Washington, D.C., in September, William F. Massy, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, told the group not to spend much time worrying about high costs at major research universities like Stanford.

ãThere is not much you can or should do about this segment of the market with regard to public policies for price or cost,ä Massy said. ãThese institutions provide the best research and are important conservators of culture.ä

According to Massy, The commission should concentrate, instead, on the ãgenericä and ãconvenienceä institutions, which enroll most of the students. He urged the commission to recommend financial incentives for faculty members at these schools so they would devote their energies to teaching and learning and not to research.

In October, the commission met at Stanford University, where President Gerhard Casper complained that government over-regulation was an important cause of rising campus costs. Casper said seven and one-half cents of every Stanford tuition dollar are spent on meeting federal and state regulatory requirements, many of which he called ãexcessive.ä

When Munitz asked Casper to provide ãa message for the American people,ä the Stanford president responded, ãOn the whole, the American higher education system is the best in the world and that is why it is so costly.ä

So far, the commission has received many explanations for inflated higher education charges, but has heard little testimony from those who have succeeded in trimming costs. For instance, Illinois, Oregon and South Dakota, among other states, have implemented plans to eliminate low-enrollment and duplicative academic programs, but no one from those states is scheduled to speak to the commission.

Commissioner Waldner has tried to focus the groupâs attention on the problem of low institutional productivity, with little success. At the October meeting, President Robert Caret of San Jose State University said public concern over high tuitions was justified because of the widening gap between stagnant personal incomes and rising college costs.

For the most part, however, the commissionâs deliberations have focused less on finding ways to reduce student charges than on persuading the public that the problem does not exist.

At the first meeting, Chairman Troutt asserted, ãWeâd like to try to help people understand what the prices and costs really are, as opposed to a media portrayal. What people donât understand is that 80 percent of students pay less than $5,000 in tuition.ä

And Commissioner Robert V. Burns, a political science professor from South Dakota State University, said, ãMaybe the problem we need to address is not rising costs but learning to cope with increasing tuition prices.ä

One of the commissionâs purposes is to clarify sometimes misleading media portrayals of the high-tuition problem, staff director Bruno Manno said in an interview.

After three more meetingsöin Boston, Nashville and Washingtonöthe commission is expected to submit a report to Congress by December 11. However, at the October meeting several commissioners expressed alarm at the groupâs lack of progress to date, and suggested that a deadline extension might be sought.

Six members of the commission were appointed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Republicans. Four were named by the Democratic minority leaders of the Senate and House. The 11th commissioner was selected by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

The commission members are:
  • Martin Anderson, a former policy adviser to Presidents Nixon and Reagan and now a fellow at the Hoover Institute
  • Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of California Independent Colleges and Universities
  • Robert V. Burns, professor of political science at South Dakota State University
  • Clare Cotton, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts
  • William D. Hansen, executive director of the Education Finance Council, an association of non-profit agencies that buy student loans from banks
  • Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College
  • Barry Munitz, chancellor of the California State University system
  • Frances Norris, vice president of the Dutko group, a lobbying firm
  • Blanche M. Touhill, chancellor of the University of Missouri, St. Louis
  • William E. Troutt, president of Belmont University
  • George Waldner, president of York College

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