Middle America in fees fear

March 15, 1996

Mounting unease over why middle-class Americans face increased college fees for their children, and what they are getting for their money, could offer fertile ground for political debate in the presidential race, analysts believe.

The conservative Republican Patrick Buchanan's play for the votes of the angry and frustrated turned a fresh focus on the number of middle-class and working-class Americans who have seen their real incomes stagnate for the last two decades.

Meanwhile, over the last four years, public colleges have upped tuition fees by 50 per cent, and in the past 15 years fee increases have easily out-paced inflation.

People are beginning to sense "how important this is, just how concerned families are about paying for higher education, the whole issue of college affordability," said Joni Finney, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center.

Bill Clinton, always keen to be seen jumping to the defence of the embattled middle-class, fired the opening shot on college affordability in his State of the Union speech in January.

He proposed a $1,000 (Pounds 658) "merit scholarship" for the top 5 per cent of graduates in every high school - an idea, Republicans grumbled, stolen from his predecessor, George Bush. Clinton also asked Congress to expand the Pell grant programme for needy students, and called for a $10,000-a-year tax deduction for college fees.

In response Senator Bob Dole, now almost certain to be his party's Presidential candidate, claims the Republican budget plan would increase funding for student loans by 50 per cent. But his offer to let taxpayers deduct a portion of interest paid on student loans looks paltry compared to Clinton's proposal.

Recent well-publicised studies have suggested US colleges produce too many PhDs at the cost of teaching students. Congress is planning hearings on what exactly US students learn at college. While President Clinton pushes more student aid, Republicans ask how the money is being spent.

State governments have traditionally carried the bulk of financing for higher education - as much as 70 per cent - meaning it has had limited relevance as a national election issue. But as the states have run into budget crunches, they are looking for ways to cut expenses and shift costs - in part by upping fees.

"States are having a hard time paying for it so it is becoming very much an issue for American families, which means it's ripe for an election issue," said Finney.

At the state level higher education has already provoked some lively debate. Florida has seen proposals to privatise the higher education system, while Minnesota has a plan to move the bulk of state aid from institutions to students - a kind of higher education voucher system.

Another blow to Middle America was when former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander dropped out of the US election race. He had argued cogently against one of the Clinton's favourite initiatives, the "direct loan" programme. It shifted the bulk of student loans from a privately-based system into the hands of the Department of Education.

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