Reveal costs, colleges urged

January 30, 1998

A NATIONAL commission on rising college costs in the United States has warned colleges to put their own houses in order or risk having outsiders do it for them.

Most academic institutions have permitted "a veil of obscurity to settle over their financial operations, and many have yet to take seriously basic strategies for reducing their costs", the commission, convened by Republican lawmakers, warned.

The colleges risk "an erosion of public trust" that could lead policy makers to impose solutions on them that would be "heavy-handed and regulatory".

The 11 members of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, composed mostly of college presidents, made 42 recommendations to make college less expensive. But they may not satisfy the Republican congressmen who rejected an early draft.

In a report, Straight Talk about College Cost and Prices, the commission says a variety of reasons is behind the rise in college costs, including new technology and better facilities, whether it be gymnasiums or dormitories wired for computers and stereo equipment.

It also blames cost problems on the government extending laws on the environment, health and safety to university campuses and laboratories.

Among its suggested solutions are "self-reviews" to identify cost-saving steps, joint campus purchases of goods and services, and joint use of facilities.

It recommends research on "academic cost control" by the government and private foundations. It suggests simplifying student aid programmes and extending them to the part-time students.

Colleges are accused of not giving parents and public enough information about academic expenditure. It recommends more "transparency" in college finances and suggests "a major public-awareness campaign to inform the public about the actual price of a post-secondary education".

Congress is to vote this year on renewal of the Higher Education Act, which includes the student aid provisions that are a lifeline for colleges. Republican congressmen in particular have threatened to get tough on "tuition inflation".

With that in mind, the commission's recommendations have been closely watched. The American Council on Education has called them "fair and balanced".

The commission rejected tuition price controls and insisted that "American higher education remains an extraordinary value".

The report confirmed a sharp rise in fees. Between 1987 and 1996, the net price of attending various types of higher education institutions rose between 81 and 159 per cent. Median family income rose just 37 per cent. Since 1996, however, that increase has flattened out, and in some cases fallen below the rate of inflation.

"Concern about rising college prices is real. The commission has observed the anxiety in parents' faces as they talk about the price of sending their children to college," the report notes. Public anxiety about fees, in fact, is on the same level as how to pay for health care or housing. Polls show "a serious and troublesome matter to the American people".

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