'Collaborate to cut costs'

September 17, 2004

A private US foundation has responded to the "counterproductive" debate over soaring university costs with a list of tangible ways to solve the problem.

The Lumina Foundation, which works mainly in the area of increasing access to higher education, suggests that neighbouring universities ought to collaborate on purchasing to reduce costs. It also recommends increasing efforts to find sources of revenue other than tuition fees.

"Practical solutions to this problem do exist," said Robert Dickeson, former president of the University of Northern Colorado, who wrote the report.

Mr Dickeson said increased demand for higher education diminished capacity on campuses and added that economic problems were "on a collision course" that would push tuition fees even further out of reach.

The foundation's report says neighbouring universities can improve their efficiency through joint-purchasing arrangements, sharing faculty and allowing cross-registration. It encourages them to increase revenues from fundraising and other non-student sources.

Universities should also allow easier transfers from lower-cost community colleges, letting students spend their first two years there before finishing at more expensive traditional universities.

The report suggests that universities work together to end the growing competition to discount tuition fees for the most desirable students. By charging varying fees, individual colleges have tried to encourage students to take classes at unpopular times of day or to take extra courses to ensure they graduate within four years.

State legislatures have frequently pressed universities to make more efficient use of their facilities and improve graduation rates while recruiting more low- income students. But tuition discounts have badly hurt some universities' bottom lines, causing bond-rating agencies to issue warnings about them.

The report calls for more suggestions from experts and the general public on how universities can control costs.

Mr Dickeson, who has also served as executive director of the Office of State Planning and Budget of the Colorado Governor, urged that continuing discussions about college costs should be more "civil".

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