US tuition fee rises spark threat to aid

September 19, 2003

Republicans in the US congress say the increasing cost of university tuition is a "crisis" that universities are not doing enough to resolve.

Some lawmakers have separately suggested withholding federal aid from institutions that continue to increase their costs by more than a certain percentage per year. Regardless of the outcome, the debate has pushed the issue of university affordability to the top of the political agenda in the US.

"The crisis requires a dramatic response," says a report by the powerful House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The report cites "growing public anxiety and even outrage over college costs", saying "exploding college cost increases" are jeopardising the ability of low and middle-income students to attend university.

"We need to change course before a college degree becomes an impossible dream for low and middle-income American students," said Republican congressman Howard McKeon, a senior member of the committee and a leading advocate of the federal Pell grants for low-income students.

The report also dismisses universities' claims that decades of tuition increases at more than double the rate of inflation are the result of economic factors beyond their control.

It says: "The facts show that tuition increases have persisted regardless of circumstances such as the economy or state funding, and have far outpaced inflation year after year, regardless of whether the economy has been stumbling or thriving."

University officials reacted immediately to the criticism. "It is just the economy," the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said in a statement. It added: "There is a direct and inverse relationship between the level of state appropriations and the level of tuition increases."

The association, which represents only public universities, said the huge increases this year, which were as high as 30 per cent in some states, were "unavoidable" because of state government budget cuts.

But the report asserts: "When times are tough, institutions increase tuition; and when times are good, institutions increase tuition as well."

It points out that in the past ten years, consumer prices have risen by 30 per cent and median family income by 40 per cent. Federal student aid has increased by 161 per cent, but still lags behind university tuition.

"Federal higher education programmes aren't having the impact they should for parents and students," said John Boehner, chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. "The federal role in higher education needs to be realigned to confront the cost crisis head on."

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