College costs on election agenda

January 30, 2004

The spiralling cost of higher education is becoming a key issue among candidates vying for the support of middle-class voters in this year's US presidential election, and university officials are concerned.

Universities so far appear to have succeeded in restraining President George W. Bush from lashing out publicly at the growing cost of tuition, which he had been widely expected to do. But the president's aides are floating the idea of tying financial aid for students at a particular institution to that university's graduation rates or its success in recruiting students in engineering and the sciences.

The Bush administration has already implemented a similar plan linking government aid for primary and secondary schools to their students' performance on standardised tests.

Tuition fees rose last year by an average of 14 per cent at US public universities and by 6 per cent at private ones, bringing the average total annual cost, including room and board, to $10,636 (£5,844) and $26,854, respectively.

Middle-class voters - who are hard pressed to pay these amounts but equally unlikely to qualify for outright grants - are getting fed up with this trend.

For their part, universities have aggressively fought proposals such as one by congressman Howard McKeon of California that would withhold government money from institutions that raise their tuition fees by more than twice the rate of inflation.

They also oppose linking government aid to graduation rates, saying it would force them to deny admission to all but the most qualified students and to lower their standards to ensure that those students could finish their degrees on time.

Universities have skirted the issue of their own affordability and argued that the government should allocate more money for student financial aid.

Their approach has had some success. The president has proposed increasing the amount of individual Pell grants, the main form of financial aid to students, by $1,000 for 36,000 particularly needy students in each of their first two years at university. At the moment, Pell grants are capped at $4,050 per student.

President Bush has also called for $250 million in federal grants for job training at community colleges, which enrol 10 million students, many of them mid-career adults who are important voters.

Two Democratic presidential candidates, senator Joseph Lieberman and retired general Wesley Clark, have proposed raising Pell grants even further.

Of the other Democratic contenders, senator John Kerry has called for tax relief for middle-income parents who are paying their children's tuition, while Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, wants to guarantee $10,000 a year in grants and loans to the best students. Senator John Edwards has said he would waive public university tuition altogether for students who volunteer for community service.

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