A NATIONAL commission on the price of higher education in the United States has been told that students' real costs soared from 1987 to 1993 but have stayed almost flat for the past three years.
The findings come in a year in which college costs have dominated education politics. Republicans have complained of institutions growing fat on central government money and Democrats have demanded "access" for students squeezed by rising fees.
The commission was convened in spring at the request of Republican congressmen to examine costs amid claims that easier government loans and grants could inflate college prices further.
It launched hearings this autumn against a tide of public concern that in 15 years fees at colleges and universities have risen above inflation, straining family finances and creating student debt.
The 11-member commission hired a research group to number- crunch data from the education department.
It revealed that from 1987 to 1990, the net cost of going to a public university rose 37 per cent. From 1990 to 1993, it rose 40 per cent. But from 1993 to 1996 figures suggest only a 3 per cent rise. The picture was much the same for private colleges, though their fees are higher. The 1993-96 increase was 9 per cent.
The commission's figures took into account tuition fees, plus room and board, but minus scholarships. Commission member Martin Anderson, of Stanford University's Hoover Institution said: "What we were told was the case, is no longer the case."
Mr Anderson, appointed by conservative Congress Speaker Newt Gingrich, is a prominent critic of the "intellectual corruption" that he says has lowered teaching standards at universities. The one charge that cannot be made against them, he said, is that they are "out to gouge the public".
In Massachusetts, California, and Tennessee, the commission heard colleges make the case that public pressure has moved them to put their own house in order. Major institutions like Stanford and Harvard have been working to control costs, along with smaller private colleges. The public University of California has recently cut fees by 5 per cent.
The commission is now "going to look at the problem a little differently than we did," said Jonathan Brown, another Republican appointee. "It may be one that is taking care of itself. In the last couple of years, we have seen costs go up dramatically, and they seem to have scaled back a bit."