College tuition measure set to pass House

March 30, 2006|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled House is expected to pass a measure today that would require colleges and universities to justify large tuition increases to the federal government and let Washington know how they plan to hold down costs in the future.

Supporters of the provision, which is part of a broader higher-education bill, say that it would offer more information to prospective students and their parents, and give them a better glimpse of how much they can expect to pay at private and public colleges.

The legislation would create a "college affordability index," providing access to data that is already compiled by the Department of Education. Any school receiving federal student aid funds that increases tuition by more than double the general inflation rate over a three-year period would have to submit a report explaining the reasons for increases, as well as a plan for avoiding them in the future.

The top 10 percent of schools with the highest rate of tuition increases would also have to establish task forces to examine their budgets and compare them with spending at other colleges. The Department of Education could impose a fine of up to $25,000 on schools that don't comply.

For decades, the cost of higher education has outstripped inflation. But opponents, who argue that the requirement is essentially an effort by Congress to set limits on tuition, say it aims at the wrong target because it ignores spending cuts at the federal and state levels that have put colleges in a financial bind in recent years.

The broader higher-education bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, is scheduled for a final vote today. It would then go to the Senate, where a companion measure does not include the provision.

Republican Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has pushed the idea for several years.

"Costs at both public and private colleges are spiraling upward - and fast," he said in a House speech yesterday. "Colleges and universities must remain accountable to consumers of higher education."

Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, which represents 18 private institutions in the state, said the legislation would create a "blacklist" of schools with big increases, without a way to explain why a college might need to charge more.

Bjarekull said six of Maryland's private colleges, nine public universities, and one community college would probably be affected if the bill becomes law. She declined to name them because, she said, it might stigmatize them.

"We understand the need to provide information to students and parents about price and cost, but we believe that kind of reporting should be meaningful information that allows them to make a decision," she said.

If Congress wants to create transparency, she said, lawmakers should also require the disclosure of the average financial aid package for students at the school.

"That would help get at the issue of net tuition," Bjarekull said.

Steven Knapp, provost of the Johns Hopkins University, said the school would probably not be affected by the provision, despite a 7.2 percent increase in tuition, to $33,900, for next fall. The increase would bring the total estimated cost of freshman year to more than $46,000, but Knapp said it's unlikely that Hopkins would need to raise tuition again by that much for several years.

Still, he said, the House bill is troubling because it does not take into account the various factors that go into setting tuition rates.

"What we're concerned about is the whole setting a precedent for introducing price controls in this area of the economy but not any other areas of the economy," Knapp said.

Knapp and Bjarekull said the House bill ignores some of the other big-ticket items for universities - including the rising cost of energy, the price of outfitting schools with the latest technology and the decline in funding from state governments, which has prompted public schools to increase tuition.

Tuition at the University of Maryland jumped 35 percent over the past four years, to $7,821 from $5,784 for in-state students. Including room, board and other expenses, the total bill for an in-state student is $19,501 per year.

Seeking to reverse the trend after several years of deep cuts in state spending on higher education, the $29.4 billion budget approved by the General Assembly on Tuesday provides enough money to freeze tuition at state universities this fall, a move supported by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said his Republican colleagues shouldn't be criticizing colleges when they voted in January to slash $12 billion from student loan programs. Van Hollen, a member of the education committee, offered an amendment with several other Democrats to provide incentives to colleges to keep tuition down, but it was not allowed to be debated.

Van Hollen said Congress has a stake in higher education because federal funds go to put students through school. But the House bill ignores the impact of state and federal budget cuts, he said.

"It is important that we have transparency here and sunshine on how colleges are developing their tuition. And I think it's important that everybody have the information to determine what are the reasons tuition's going up," Van Hollen said. "But just to focus exclusively on the fact of the tuition increase, without looking at the underlying costs ... that's creating a misleading picture."

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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