Panel to probe higher education costs

January 05, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

If left unchecked, the way the nation's colleges and universities finance themselves will choke generations of students and undermine public trust in higher education, according to former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

Mr. Kean will lead a new national commission, to be announced this morning, with the lofty mission to save higher education from itself.

The Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, composed of campus and corporate leaders, intends to draw up plans by this fall to rework the way the country pays for education beyond high school.

Mr. Kean, now president of Drew University, a small private liberal arts college in New Jersey, said he has been startled by the number of students who visit his office saying that they can no longer afford the school's $25,000 annual tab. "It strikes me that an enormous number of these people are minorities -- people who as a society we should be bending over backward to help," Mr. Kean said. "It's very regressive, and it's unintended."

"I don't think anybody is looking at the big picture," said Mr. Kean. "This kind of question is off the political screen. It gets handled piecemeal in terms of what cuts are made."

"If nobody comes to grips with the issues of financing, higher education is going to have more difficulty in maintaining the trust of the public," said Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith, one of the commission's 15 members. "I would not conclude that it's untenable, but it's certainly badly damaged, and we need to take a look at it."

Mr. Kean and co-chairman Joseph Dionne, the chief executive officer of McGraw-Hill Inc., are scheduled to unveil their commission plans this morning at a press conference in Washington. They intend to explore what the nation expects of its colleges and universities, and also to see if they can devise standards to hold colleges accountable to those expectations without squelching their distinctive strengths.

Federal funding has declined roughly 10 percent in the past decade, and state funding has dropped even further, Mr. Kean said. And much government aid has been shifted from grants to loans, resulting in a greater burden on students than ever before.

The panel will operate under the umbrella of the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education, giving it no official government role. A number of influential educational initiatives have started outside the government, including the Knight Commission, which examined collegiate athletics, and the Wingspread Report, which called for an advocacy of values in modern education.

In the past few years, the nation has shown itself to be unwilling to invest large additional amounts of public dollars into higher education, said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Aid to Education. Dr. Eaton drafted a 23-page report, to be used as a starting point for the panel, that states:

* The ability to raise more money through higher tuition has been almost completely exploited, forcing middle-class families to either forego higher education or face increasingly large loans.

* Under the current system, access to higher education will be dictated by class, with student populations sorted by income bracket into community colleges, public schools and elite private campuses.

These trends are occurring at a time when more students, not fewer, are seeking entry into the nation's colleges and universities, Dr. Eaton noted.

Underlying all these facts is the concern that the decline in public funding mirrors a decline in the trust the public has for higher education. In a survey conducted last February by Louis Harris and Associates Inc., only 25 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in the people running the nation's colleges and universities, down from 40 percent a decade ago and from 61 percent in 1966.

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