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Bill Aims to Combat Rising College Costs

October 16, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

A much-anticipated congressional proposal to combat escalating college costs by threatening penalties against schools that impose big tuition hikes is expected to be introduced today by California Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon.

The proposal, fiercely opposed by higher education lobbyists since the Santa Clarita Republican first broached the idea in March, comes as students at public institutions in California and elsewhere in the U.S. are absorbing double-digit cost increases.

The bill would enable the federal government to withhold some student grants and loans from schools that boosted tuition and fees beyond a set standard pegged to inflation.

McKeon, who is chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees higher education, says his legislation for the Affordability in Higher Education Act is needed to pressure colleges and universities to hold down their expenses.

He said too many institutions would rather impose tuition hikes than look for ways to cut operating costs.

"They feel like there's nothing they can do to control their costs. Well, I think there is something they can do," McKeon said.

Although higher education lobbyists have widely acknowledged that colleges and universities can do far more to contain costs, many take issue with the way McKeon's proposal would expand federal regulatory authority.

They also criticized provisions that would punish institutions by withholding aid intended for students.

Student lobbying groups are among the skeptics.

"We definitely need Congress to address the issue of college tuitions that are out of reach for some students, but penalizing students isn't the way to do it," said Kate Rube, who serves as a higher education lobbyist in Washington for the California Public Interest Research Group and for such groups in 29 other states.

Critics say McKeon's bill ignores the fact that an increasing number of students don't pay the posted, or "sticker," price of tuition. They note that many four-year college students receive tuition "discounts," in other words, grants or scholarships.

They say that the students at four-year schools who pay full tuition, most of whom come from high-income families, are helping cover the cost of financial aid for low-income students.

"That money has got to come from somewhere," said Alexander W. Astin, director of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.

If tuition increases were held to arbitrary levels, Astin said, administrators almost certainly would be forced "into drastic measures, which will only make it harder for a poor kid to go to college."

In response to critics, McKeon softened various provisions in his proposal. For instance, the institutions whose tuitions were in the bottom quarter for schools in their categories would be exempt. For example, California's community colleges, which remain the cheapest two-year institutions in the nation despite boosting fees by 64% over the summer, would not be affected.

The proposal would also give colleges and universities room for tuition and fee increases higher than previously envisioned. Initially, the bill was seen as a crackdown on institutions that boosted tuition and fees by percentages that were double the rate of inflation. Now, however, the cutoff would be double the inflation rate plus $500 in a given year.

Under the bill, the federal government would be able to punish offending schools by withholding funding for work-study programs and some student grants and loans that are administered by the institutions. Such programs account for nearly $2 billion a year in federal spending. However, a much bigger source of student aid -- Pell Grants and federal loans issued directly to students by the government -- would not be affected.

The bill also contains provisions to help students transfer credits from one school to another so they could avoid retaking courses, and to provide more information about college costs to students and parents.

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