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More concern for college costs needed, congressmen tell panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–A Baptist college president is navigating a congressional commission through a bit of political turbulence as the panel examines rising college costs.
According to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education, the average published tuition price at a public university increased 132 percent from 1987-96, although average spending per student rose at just half that rate, or 57 percent. At private institutions, tuition increased 99 percent during the period, while spending per student rose 68 percent.
William Troutt, president of Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn., a 3,000-student college affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, is the chairman of an 11-member National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, created last summer to issue a report on rising college costs by Dec. 11.
But before the deadline came, politics entered in, as reflected in a headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Republican Pressure Leads to Shift in Study of Higher-Education Costs.”
The problem was, an early draft of the commission’s report stated America’s universities and colleges, contrary to public opinion, are largely a bargain, according to the Chronicle’s Dec. 12 issue.
Also, said Jay Diskey, communications director of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, press reports began circulating a few weeks earlier in which “various members of the commission were indicating they did not believe the cost of college education was anything to be alarmed about. The preliminary report indicated in some areas there was no cause for alarm, that costs have moderated in the last three years.”
Rep. Bill Goodling, R.-Pa., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R.-Calif., chairman of its Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training and Lifelong Learning, issued a joint statement Dec. 2 directed to the commission:
“… we want to remind the commission of its legislative mandate to investigate the rising costs of higher education — not to engage in a debate over whether there is a cost crisis.”
“Any suggestion that we don’t have a crisis flies in the face of common sense,” the congressmen stated. “Every American family knows that college costs are too high. Yes, costs have somewhat stabilized, and yes, a college education remains one of the very best investments a family can make. But, tuition increases continue to outpace inflation and tuition has risen by 9 percent in the last three years alone. We also know that if these increases continue, the cost of college education will very soon be beyond the reach of most Americans.”
The problem is, Troutt said in a statement to Baptist Press Dec. 10, “The congressional staff concerns, expressed in a Dec. 2 statement, were focusing on staff drafts of a commission report that had not been approved by the commission. Several commission members also had concerns about the draft.”
By the time the commission met Dec. 4, the report draft had been shelved. The panel now will issue its key recommendations in late December or early January and a full report by the end of January, Diskey said, noting the commission “seemed to be on a better track” at its Dec. 4 meeting. Commission members “seemed to accept there’s a crisis and to try to do something” about containing and cutting college costs, Diskey said. Tuition increases have outpaced inflation over a number of years, he stated, with last year’s increase of 5 percent, as reported by The College Board, twice the inflation rate.
Troutt, in his statement, described the commission’s Dec. 4 meeting as “fully productive” and stated the commission will issue an interim report the week of Dec. 14.
The commission’s report will be utilized in congressional deliberations next year on the $40 billion Higher Education Act, which comes up for reauthorization every five years and contains sizable sums for various forms of student aid.
Goodling and McKeon, in their Dec. 2 statement, said the House established the commission “to determine if there are major obstacles that are keeping college from remaining affordable, or whether there is an array of factors that have caused college tuition to spiral upward. We also need to make sure that Washington is part of the solution and not part of the problem.
“We need answers to these questions and we need them now,” the congressmen said, voicing hope that the commission “can provide us with some solutions. We will be disappointed with anything less.”
Troutt, who leads one of 50-plus Baptist-related colleges across the country, said in prepared remarks to the commission Dec. 4: “This concern about college cost is very real. We have seen the fear in parents’ faces as they talk about sending a child to college. People see a college degree as something of great value, as a way to a better life; but they see access and opportunity slipping away.”
Troutt acknowledged, “We know prices have increased dramatically over a number of years. We know college is expensive.” At present, he noted, “the increase in the actual price students and families pay has begun to moderate.”
Operating costs, however, “are not moderating,” Troutt said, calling on higher education to “redouble its effort to contain cost. … Productivity and efficiency need to be institutional priorities for trustees, administrators and faculty. … We realize no ‘one size fits all’ solution exists. We simply are calling for institutional self- reflection.”
Colleges and universities must “make cost more transparent to the public,” Troutt also said. “We see it as a major responsibility for higher education.”
While families must “plan and pay their fair share,” they are “very confused and poorly informed about this whole matter of college costs,” Troutt said. “They need help accessing higher education and the system of financial aid (which we believe can be streamlined and improved). … We need to close the enormous information gap about price and the availability of aid. We are calling for a national effort to do just that. We want people to know the real cost to attend various types of institutions and where aid is available to help them.”
If higher education takes no action, Troutt said, “we will see either an erosion of quality of life for people who work in higher education or price increases will start to climb again. We fear that some type of externally imposed cost control would then be the prescribed solution.”
Among other comments by Troutt:
— “We found some outstanding examples of efficiency and productivity from all types of institutions. From large university systems to large public universities like Michigan State, to smaller private institutions like York College. These examples need to be lifted up, studied and encouraged.”
— “There needs to be a better understanding of how everyone’s actions can drive up or contain cost. Overall we are calling for a broader definition of academic citizenship on campuses. It is not just a matter of what is good for one academic discipline or one administrative department. Individuals must also think about the good of the whole institution.”
— Efforts to contain costs “may mean refocusing on mission,” Troutt said. “We have learned that the blurring of mission leads to increasing costs.” Organizational restructuring also may be required, he said.
— “Congress and other policymakers can free up higher education to be more efficient through a careful rethinking of laws, regulations and mandates,” Troutt said. “The questions needs to be asked by all lawmakers: Is this regulation worth higher tuition?”
— Acknowledging higher education’s “own self-imposed regulations through accreditation … impact cost,” Troutt said, “Specialized accreditation in particular needs to rethink the cost impact and fiscal pressures it often creates.”
According to yearly figures compiled by the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools, tuition and fees at Belmont, for example, increased from $6,680 for the 1992- 93 school year to $9,500 for the 1996-97 year. Among other ranges during the same time frame: Samford University, Alabama, $7,064 to $9,070; Ouachita Baptist University, Arkansas, $5,800 to $7,650; California Baptist College, $7,210 to $8,170; Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida, $6,350 to $9,300; Mercer University in Georgia, $10,287 to $13,896; Campbellsville College in Kentucky, $5,400 to $6,898; Louisiana College, $4,870 to $6,110; Mississippi College, $5,316 to $10,250; William Jewell College in Missouri, $8,970 to $11,130; Oklahoma Baptist University, $5,386 to $7,085; Union University in Tennessee, $4,900 to $7,080; and Baylor University in Texas, $6,590 to $8,756. The lowest increase: Grand Canyon University in Arizona, $6,330 to $6,612.
Barry Munitz, chancellor of the California State University System and vice chairman of the commission, said at the Dec. 4 meeting, “Unless colleges take specific actions to reduce their costs, we are at risk of another price surge,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. “This is no time for colleges to relax,” Munitz said.
USA Today, meanwhile, quoted another commission member, Robert Burns, a political science professor at South Dakota State University, as saying, “A university is not a General Motors. There are costs you cannot escape.”
Among sections of the now-shelved draft report quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
— “Public anxiety about how to pay for college expenses is extremely high. However, the general public understands very little about college costs or prices. In particular, members of the public are inclined to overstate substantially the sticker price of various kinds of colleges, while understating the amount of financial aid available.”
— “Three-quarters of all full-time undergraduate students attend four-year colleges that charge less than $8,000 a year in tuition, about what a decent used car would cost.”
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Republican leaders in Congress plan to challenge rising tuition costs during deliberations on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act next year.
Diskey, of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce staff, told Baptist Press, “It seems the higher the costs go, the more the federal government is asked to pump into the educational system, but we don’t feel that every increase should be passed along to the taxpayer or the American family.”
Troutt was appointed to the commission by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., and elected chairman during the commission’s first meeting, Aug. 11 in Washington.
Making up the commission are individuals appointed by the following: three by the speaker of the House, two by the minority leader of the House, three by the Senate majority leader, two by the Senate minority leader and one by the secretary of education.