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Objectivity of Study on College Costs Is Questioned

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Washington--Members of the House Postsecondary Education Subcommittee, agreeing with the contention of higher-education officials that a recent Education Department study on college costs is deeply flawed, have questioned the objectivity of the office that produced the report.

"You should insulate the research office from the very strong views held by the Secretary and others--for all I know, everyone--in the department," Representative Chester G. Atkins, Democrat of Massachusetts, admonished Chester E. Finn Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

"Whatever results come out, they will be controversial because of these suspicions," Mr. Atkins said.

At an oversight hearing on college costs held this month, Mr. Atkins and Representative Pat Williams,4Democrat of Montana, charged that the study prepared by the research office was undertaken to support conclusions already reached by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and other department officials.

Echoing arguments made by higher-education lobbyists, Representative Atkins claimed, for example, that the study's primary researcher, Duc-Le To, had chosen methods of analysis that inflated the report's cost estimates, especially for private colleges.

"Where he had choices, he did what would support" Mr. Bennett's charges that colleges are unfairly raising tuition, Representative Atkins asserted.

Charges Said 'Insulting'

Mr. Finn called the charges "insulting" and praised the report, "Estimating the Cost of a Bachelor's Degree: An Institutional Cost Analysis," as "a useful and competent start" to unraveling a complex problem.

He also criticized higher-education officials for focusing on the cost differential that was found between public and private institutions. The study's purpose, he noted, was to estimate the average cost of educating a student and look for factors that contribute to high costs.

The report estimated that it cost private colleges an average of $28,386 to produce one graduate in 1983, compared with $18,474 for public institutions.

Mr. To told the committee that he found higher costs to be associated with smaller enrollments and student-to-faculty ratios, higher levels of institutional financial aid, and generous student support services. Larger institutions enjoy economies of scale, he said, supporting the assertions of higher-education spokesmen that comparisons between different types of colleges are misleading.

'No-Frills Education'

"A no-frills education is cheaper," Representative Williams said. ''You've come to the conclusion that excellence in education costs money, and that doesn't surprise me."

Mr. Finn agreed, but produced data showing that tuition has increased more rapidly than the cost of educating students during the 1980's. ''Something has happened since 1980 that cannot be explained by saying, 'We're making up for the 1970's,"' when faculty salaries lost purchasing power, the assistant secretary argued.

The need to raise faculty salaries to compete with private industry was one of several factors contributing to higher costs that college presidents and representatives of higher-education groups mentioned at the hearing.

Also cited were higher-than-inflation increases in the cost of goods colleges must purchase, the need to obtain ever-more-sophisticated technology, the push to expand student services in order to compete for declining enrollments, and the need to provide more financial aid to needy students.

Contrary to Mr. Bennett's contention that the presence of federal student aid has allowed colleges to increase prices, the higher-education representatives said, decreases in aid during the 1980's have forced institutions to provide more aid of their own and to raise tuition. They also cited tight state budgets with lower appropriations for public institutions.

Arthur M. Hauptman, a consultant who works with the American Council on Education, said that while some of colleges' operating costs have increased, expenditures per student have not increased significantly faster than the inflation rate, while tuition charges have outpaced inflation.

"Costs are not escalating that much, but tuition has become a greater percentage of the cost," he said, suggesting as a solution increased federal financial aid and tax incentives for education savings.

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