Hold Colleges Accountable for Tuition Increases
It is not often that President Obama borrows from the Republican playbook to push a policy that some Republican Members of Congress have been advocating for years. In his State of the Union address last month and later at an address at the University of Michigan, President Obama put colleges on notice that unless they find ways to reduce college tuition and make college more affordable, then his administration will reduce federal funds to campus-based student aid programs. While the majority of this administration’s higher education policies have resulted in more federal spending with additional burdensome federal regulations, his proposal to tie federal funds to a reduction in skyrocketing college tuition rates could find bipartisan support. Certainly, his insistence for more transparency on costs, graduation rates, employment earnings, and student debt should find a sympathetic ear from Congressional Republicans. Indeed, Congressman John Kline (R-MN), Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, agreed. In a January 27, 2012 press release, he said, “Competition and transparency are basic principles Republicans have long supported to help lower costs in higher education, and institutions have a responsibility to do everything they can to provide a good education at an affordable price.”
Not surprisingly, the immediate reaction from the higher education academic elites was that such proposals “smack of price controls” leading to more federal control over college campuses. While praising President Obama’s significant increases in federal higher education spending, college presidents made clear yet again that they do not believe they need to be held accountable for how their students perform or what jobs they retain after graduation in order to receive federal taxpayer dollars. This is not new. Over the years, the higher education establishment has consistently opposed any legislation that would hold them accountable for the tuition they charge and the student academic outcomes they produce or don’t produce.
In 2003, this outcry was overwhelmingly loud and forceful when Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA) first proposed legislation to hold colleges and universities accountable for increasing costs. Charges of price controls and excessive federal intrusion were used then as arguments to oppose his bill. Congressman McKeon introduced the Affordability in Higher Education Act, to create a college affordability index to “provide consumer information and public accountability in higher education.” Under this legislation, all Title IV aid, except student loans and Pell Grants, could be withheld from colleges and universities that increased tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation. In an October, 2003 press release, Congressman McKeon stated, “For too long, parents and students have been forced to endure skyrocketing tuition increases that make it harder each year to achieve the dream of a college education. Our nation is grappling with a college cost crisis that is threatening to push higher education out of reach for low and middle income students.” Those words still ring true today as do the deceptive charges of “price controls” coming from the higher education community against President Obama’s efforts to get colleges to reduce tuition or risk losing federal funds.
Members of Congress from both sides of the political spectrum agree that the cost of a college education is out of control resulting in more and more students facing an increased amount of debt upon graduation with few employment opportunities to help them reduce that debt. According to a recent College Board policy briefing paper, How Much are College Students Borrowing, 66 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2007-2008. The average amount of debt from students graduating from four-year public institutions is $17,700 and $22,375 for those graduating from private four-year institutions. Colleges and universities have done little to rein in the cost of a college education. Over the last decade, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board have jumped by 37 percent at public four-year universities and by 25 percent at private four-year colleges.
In 2008, Republicans were successful in trying to hold colleges and universities accountable for cost increases. Under Congressman McKeon’s leadership, colleges now must provide consumers information on a whole host of basic items. For the first time, parents and students now have information to make an accurate assessment of what it costs to receive a college diploma.
- Tuition and fees charged for first time, full time undergraduates,
- Room and board,
- The cost of attendance for first-time full-time undergraduates,
- The average amount of financial aid and the number of students receiving such aid,
- The faculty-to-student ratios and the percentage of faculty who are employed as full-time and part-time faculty,
- Completion and graduation rates including post-graduate earnings and employment information
- Should a school increase tuition, an explanation of the factors contributing to the increase
- Which schools increased tuition significantly and which held tuitions down is also now public
Rather that insisting on more federal spending for higher education programs President Obama should be pointing parents and students to the information that is now available to them. Adding to the federal debt will not bring down college costs or reduce student debt and such proposals will not find bipartisan support in Congress. Colleges and universities should be held accountable for the federal tax dollars they receive. The question will be whether policymakers will stand up to those in the higher education community who want to thwart any efforts to introduce transparency and accountability to our higher education system. House Republicans have done so in the past and should do so again so that college can be affordable for all students.