Rising Tuition Raises Ire of Congress, Which Is Constantly Being Asked to Raise Student Aid

More federal aid should not prompt colleges and universities to raise their tuitions, witnesses told a House committee Thursday. But some lawmakers continue to seek a link between the two issues as they consider new initiatives to promote college access and success.

“What good is it for Congress to raise financial aid by $2,000 if colleges increase tuition by $3,000?” said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., at a hearing Thursday on equal educational opportunity before the House Education and Labor Committee. “The skyrocketing cost of tuition is starting to tick people off around here.”

Witnesses, including the president of a Hispanic-serving institution, countered that while higher education costs are up, federal aid should not get the blame.

“Pell Grants are the least cost-sensitive of our financial aid programs,” said Dr. F. King Alexander, president of California State University–Long Beach, an HSI.

To operate buildings and staff classrooms, colleges also have seen widespread increases in basic costs. Technology costs in recent years have nearly tripled, while utility costs are up 150 percent and health insurance premiums have nearly doubled, said Dr. John Bassett, president of Clark University in Massachusetts.

“It’s a labor-intensive industry,” Bassett said.

College prices are increasing more rapidly than spending in many categories, said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability. While public college tuition has jumped 40 percent during the past six years, for example, the amount of money going to direct instruction has increased only 4 percent, she said.

With that in mind, she said, one change to benefit at-risk students may be for colleges to place more full-time faculty in freshman and sophomore classes where they can help promote student persistence.

In convening the hearing, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee chair, said his panel will take up the issue of college pricing when it considers a comprehensive Higher Education Act reauthorization bill later in November.

“Whether a student attends a public college in-state or out-of-state, a private college or a two-year college, the bad news is that prices are up across the board,” Miller said. “We must work with colleges to help rein in these skyrocketing costs and to provide consumers with better information about college pricing.”

The issue also has bipartisan interest, as Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the panel’s senior Republican, joined Miller in seeking more answers. “After decades of exploding college costs, America has reached a crisis point,” he said.

During the hearing, however, lawmakers heard that part of the problem is declining state funding for public higher education. Alexander said that “drastic fluctuations in state appropriations” are a major reason behind public college tuition increases.

He called for a “maintenance-of-effort” partnership between federal and state governments that might prevent states from making major cuts in higher education support.

Such a policy would “make it more difficult for states to further reduce their fiscal responsibility to public colleges and universities by shifting the costs of higher education to students, and ultimately, federal tuition-based programs,” Alexander said.

Miller’s committee may begin marking up an HEA bill as early as next week.

–Charles Dervarics

 

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