Higher Ed under Attack
Federal and state government trends threaten colleges' ability to best serve their students.
If you have been following recent news about the costs of a college education -- and I hope all ICQ readers pay attention to such news -- you may have heard about the Affordability in Higher Education Act of 2003.
Introduced into Congress by Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-California), this bill was ostensibly intended to make a college education more accessible to students with limited resources. As originally proposed, it would require colleges that increased tuition faster than twice the consumer price index (CPI) to publish an explanation for doing so. Institutions that increased tuition two years in a row at that rate would face "sanctions," including the loss of eligibility for some federal student aid programs.
While it is imperative that students and parents have as much information as possible about college pricing and financial aid when making their higher education decisions, the notion of giving the ultimate control over the price of a college education to a government agency in Washington just doesn't make sense.
As I wrote in a letter to McKeon last November, "Far from making postsecondary education more accessible to students with limited resources, the bill would instead serve to further limit the ability of higher education institutions to serve those very students. I urge you to withdraw this bill and to enlist the support of your colleagues in developing a collaborative strategy toward addressing these important issues."
It appears the colleagues of McKeon -- who chairs the principal subcommittee on higher education in the House of Representatives -- may have heard those of us who took issue with McKeon's simplistic approach to the problem of high tuition costs. They did not support the legislation, and McKeon announced in early March that he was withdrawing his proposal.
Credit for helping derail the most punitive aspects of the plan should be given to Ithaca's representatives in the House and Senate, as well as to higher education advocacy organizations to which Ithaca College belongs, including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education. Our affiliation and involvement with such organizations help amplify our voice on a national level.
The news is not all good, however. While he has eliminated the provision for sanctions, McKeon still wants to censure colleges and universities that raise their tuition and other costs of attendance by more than twice the rate of inflation for three consecutive years. Such institutions would be required to explain to the government the reasons for the increase and to outline how they plan to slow down the rate hikes. Colleges and universities that fail to comply with that plan after two years would be placed on a government "watch list" and would have to provide the Department of Education with a detailed accounting of all of their costs and expenditures, which would be made public.
It is important to emphasize that nobody in higher education wants to raise tuition rates, ever. But it is equally important to note -- as we will continue to try to make clear to McKeon and his colleagues -- that the CPI is not a relevant benchmark for indexing the setting of tuition prices. The items -- primarily consumer goods and services -- that make up the CPI do not represent the items that drive the costs at a college or university. We are a labor-intensive and equipment-intensive organizational environment, not a retail store or occasional consumer service.
Such a "one size fits all" approach to the expense of higher education also ignores the investment required to assure access for qualified but needy students. Our own operating budget, funded for the most part by tuition dollars (and already squeezed by the precipitously rising costs of basic expenditures such as insurance and utilities), is a significant source of financial aid. So any attempt to limit the rate of tuition increases will squeeze the student aid dollars out of our budget.
It is especially disconcerting that this effort is coming at the same time that federal support for financial aid programs, such as Pell grants, is declining and that continuing state support is uncertain. New York's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) has already failed to keep pace with rising costs over the years, breaching its implicit promise to help provide a more equal playing field for the economically disadvantaged. Governor Pataki's proposed state budget calls for cuts in the program that would mean a loss of more than $1.2 million in financial assistance for current Ithaca College students.
I urge all alumni, parents, students, and others interested in maintaining the affordability of a college education to be vigilant in monitoring the situation at the state and federal levels and to contact your elected representatives to make sure they are aware of your concerns.
Those who live in New York can find more information on how to advocate on behalf of TAP by visiting Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.