Higher Education Bill Draws a Bead on Tuition Costs

Article excerpt

The rapid rise in college costs has caught the attention of Congress, which is taking steps to at least give the public reason to hope for a break on tuition bills.

New legislation, expected to clear the House and Senate after press time on July 31, includes provisions designed to put pressure on colleges, universities, and states to rein in the escalating price of a college education.

The best potential for doing so, some experts say, lies in the searchable college data that the US Department of Education will post online to bring transparency to tuition rates and the "net price" students pay after receiving aid.

One set of lists would spotlight the 5 percent of institutions with the largest percentage tuition increase over the past three years - in categories such as public, private, four-year, and two- year. They would have to report to the Ed Department the reasons for the tuition hikes.

"There are lists that no college or university wants to be on. They don't want to be on the Princeton Review's Top 10 party school list ... and they're not going to [want to] be on the list ... saying [they] have raised their tuition faster than others," says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy and research group in Washington. But it's difficult to predict the level of impact such scrutiny will have, given the variety of factors that affect college pricing, he adds.

The Education Department will also be required to list the 5 percent most expensive and the 10 percent least expensive schools in each category.

Online calculator coming

Within a year of the bill's passage, students and parents should be able to use online calculators to estimate what any given college would cost based on their income level and family situation. Since most students receive financial aid, it's important for families to see this net price, experts say, rather than simply compare based on the full-charge "sticker price."

There's little agreement about how effective these new requirements of the Higher Education Opportunity Act will be, but many experts say they can't hurt.

"Anything that brings public attention to rising college costs is good, and public pressure probably helps to moderate tuition increases in the long run," says Ross Hodel, codirector of the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. But for higher education to work efficiently, he says, "it takes all parties - the states, the feds, and the parent or student ... [each doing] their share."

States' education spending targeted

To push states to do their part, the law requires that their higher education funding each year be at least as much as their previous five-year average (excluding capital and research and development). …