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College Groups Score Flawed E.D. Study

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Copyright 1987 Washington--In the latest round in the ongoing debate between the Education Department and higher-education groups, college officials have asked the department to scrap what they call a "fatally flawed" study concluding that educating a student at a private college is 54 percent more costly than at a state-supported institution.

Arguing that the conclusion is based on faulty methodology, officials from a number of higher-education associations denounced the as-yet-unreleased study at a press conference here last month. They charged that the document was politically motivated and said it could divide the higher-education community and turn public opinion against aid for private colleges.

"This is a shoddy and poor piece of work, and it should never see the light of day," said Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "This is one more example of what has got to be a blatant political attack on independent colleges and universities."

Mr. Rosser added that studies in Washington State and New York State had found that the costs of educating students in similar institutions are similar. While he said he welcomed a national study of the issue, he added that it should be conducted in a more valid way.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, called the association's actions "paranoid" and "possibly unethical," and he denied any political motivation in releasing the report.

"We are publishing [critical] comments along with the paper," he said. "That's not something you do if you want to escape criticism or score political points."

Mr. Finn acknowledged that the study was imperfect, but said that such imperfections are typical in a research work of the kind.

"The paper is an academic exercise, designed to be the first cut on a complicated issue," he said. "It's not a slick, glossy policy statement."

The study, "Estimating the Cost of a Bachelor's Degree: An Institutional Cost Analysis," was prepared by Duc-Le To, a research associate at oeri

It notes that the issue of college costs has become increasingly sensitive over the past few years, as tuitions, which pay for a fraction of the cost of education, have risen faster than inflation.

As if to underscore that point, the College Board announced last month that college tuitions and fees are expected to rise this year by between 5 percent and 8 percent over last year's levels. (See related table on page 5.)

The department's study concludes that the average cost of a bachelor's degree in 1983 was $24,713. But it notes that the cost differs according to type of institution. At private institutions, the average cost of a college education was $28,386, while at public institutions it was $18,474.

The college officials argued that the study's methodology skewed the results. For example, according to Elaine El-Khawas, the American Council on Education's vice president for policy analysis and research, the study, in calculating the average cost per student, makes no allowance for attrition, which is much higher in public institutions.

In addition, said Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, the study counts student financial aid as an expenditure, rather than as revenue.

Such "double bookkeeping" makes private colleges appear more expensive than they are, since they tend to provide more institutional aid than state-supported colleges with lower tuition rates, he said.

Mr. Zemsky, who was one of 11 reviewers hired by the department to oversee the study, added that several expenditures, such as employee fringe benefits, are paid by state governments in many public institutions. Thus, he said, "it appears that the way to make colleges more efficient is to give them state subsidies."

Mr. To, in a written rejoinder to his critics, said further research was needed to determine the true cost of a bachelor's degree.

"I was surprised that this paper was interpreted as providing conclusive answers to policymakers," Mr. To wrote. "It was, indeed, only intended to stimulate discussion and research on the subject, and to some degree, that goal appears to have been achieved."

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