Democrats’ Bill Would Penalize States That Slash Higher EducationThe best way to keep tuition costs from climbing is to lean on states that cut college budgets. At least that is the thinking behind a new bill proposed by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats say their initiative makes more sense than the competing Republican bill, which would hold individual schools accountable for raising their tuition.As part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Democrats’ bill would discourage states from reducing financial support for public higher-education institutions. Starting with academic years that began on or after July 1, 2003, state governments would have to keep funding the schools at the same level they had supported them during the previous five years. If the states did not comply, they would not get money from the federal government for “administrative expenses and costs under any federal education program,” according to the legislation.Reps. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and John F. Tierney, D-Mass., sponsors of the bill, said dwindling state support is largely to blame for public higher education’s increasingly hefty price tag.“Over the past three years, states have slashed their support for higher education. The weak economy, regressive tax cuts for the wealthy, and federal budget cuts are devastating state budgets, pushing higher prices onto college students (and their families), more than three-quarters of whom attend public colleges and universities,” Tierney says.“In the past year alone, tuition has increased an average 14.1 percent at four-year public institutions, 13.8 percent at two-year public institutions and 6 percent at four-year private schools,” he says. The bill also offers incentives for colleges to control costs. Schools that keep their annual tuition at or below the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) would get extra Pell Grant funds, or “Pell Plus Grants.” The HEPI measures the rate of tuition increase among colleges and universities.Additional Pell Grants would also go to schools that guarantee new students four years of low tuition.If the Democrats’ bill becomes law, each public college and university will have to submit a five-year plan for containing costs to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Schools would also be required to make information about tuition, room, board and other expenses readily accessible for parents and students. To help students calculate costs at a particular institution, the plan suggests a “national online college price calculator.”Democrats say their proposal is better than the Republican alternative.Unveiled in mid-October by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the Republican plan would determine how affordable schools are by comparing their tuition and fee increases to increases in the Consumer Price Index, one of the variables used to measure the rate of inflation. If a school raised tuition and fees at more than twice the rate of inflation during a three-year period, it would have to explain the increases to the U.S. Department of Education and submit a plan to lower its costs. The school would then have two academic years to achieve those goals. Failing that, the college would be placed on a “cost affordability alert” status and asked for a detailed list of all its expenditures. If the school remained red-flagged a year later, it would be stripped of its federal student-aid eligibility, including Pell Grants and Stafford and Direct Loans.“The Republican bill relies on failed attempts at price controls. Rather than making college more affordable, the Republican bill will lead to fewer affordable college opportunities for students,” says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the 19 co-sponsors of the Democrats’ bill. “Their approach is simplistic and ineffective and should be rejected. Simply saying that you want to make college affordable will not help.”But some educators say neither bill is a viable antidote for the financial ills plaguing higher education.“Would the affordability problem go away if we passed either one of these bills? Probably not,” says Dr. Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education.Ideally, effective legislation would hold states and institutions accountable, Callan said. But he said the federal government might not be the best place to find a cure-all.“Can the federal government really find a solution that would work in all 50 states and the (thousands of) institutions? I’m just not sure of that,” Callan says. And while it’s still early in the game, Callan said, the wrangling on Capitol Hill will likely have one of two outcomes.“You could have a productive discussion about what we’re going to do to get the affordability issue under control. Or you could have — and it would probably be the preference of a lot of people — a partisan stalemate in which everyone is blaming someone else,” Callan says.Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., one of the co-sponsors of the Democrats’ bill, said the last time the HEA was reviewed in 1998, Democrats and Republicans worked well together and created a bipartisan bill. That hasn’t happened this time, he said.
— By Kristina Lane
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