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Panel Looks to Future' in Broad Study of College Financing

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By Mark Pitsch

WASHINGTON--As members of the Congress labor to rewrite the laws governing the federal system of student financial aid, a panel of educators, business people, and politicians is conducting a broader review of how higher education is financed.

The National Commission on Responsibilities for Financing Postsecondary Education is expected to report to the Congress in early 1993 on recommendations for restructuring American higher education, as well as on proposed improvements in student aid.

"The commission is looking at quite radical departures, rather than just increasing the Pelf Grant by 5 percent," William Cotter, the president of Colby College in Maine and a member of the panel, said in an interview last week.

While no firm conclusions have been reached, Mr. Cotter said, he and his colleagues generally agree that students are forced to rely too much on loans, that different solutions may be needed for traditional and nontraditional students, and that students, their families, colleges, and the state and federal governments must share the responsibility for financing higher education.

In addition to looking at financing models in the United States, Mr. Cotter said, the commission and its research teams are studying how higher education is financed in Europe, Japan, and Canada.

He said the commission recognizes the fiscal constraints under which institutions and government are operating. "These will not be a set of recommendations that will be oblivious to fiscal realities," Mr. Cotter said.

A Long Wait

The nine-member panel was created in 1986 as part of the last revision of laws governing higher-education programs.

"I thought it was important that we look to the future, that we look 20 years ahead to determine how to finance a postsecondary education," said Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who sponsored the legislation creating the commission while serving in the House.

"I thought we needed an outside look at it," Mr. Jeffords said. "There is a tendency not to see the forest for the trees when you're working with a program that's been around for a while."

The panel was not formed until last year, primarily because provisions allowing federal funding for it were inadvertently left out of the legislation creating it. The problem was apparently viewed as a low-priority item, and was not resolved until 1990.

After the commission was established, its work was further delayed when its first executive director, former Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, resigned to head the school of education at George Washington University.

The new executive director is Jamie Merisotis, a consultant who has written extensively on higher-education financing. The panel is chaired by former Senator Paula Hawkins, Republican of Florida.

The commission finally embarked last spring on a series of meetings with representatives of state and federal government, higher education, and the business world.

It also has held three public hearings; three more hearings and a national conference are scheduled for next year.

Plenty of Ideas

Research teams at the University of Vermont, the University of California at Los Angeles, and George Mason University in Virginia are evaluating the ideas generated by the recent hearings.

For example, Thomas P. Wallace, the president of Illinois State University, suggested that states reduce their subsidy of public colleges for students from wealthy families and that the federal government increase its aid for needy students at those institutions. Daryl Grisham, a Chicago businessman, proposed private insurance plans similar to prepaid-tuition programs offered by a number of states. Parents would make payments on behalf of their child, and the fund would pay for his college education.

Under an idea suggested by Ismael Ramirez-Soto, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Council on Higher Education, the final year of high school would be eliminated and a filch year would be added to postsecondary education.

Students should be able to attend community colleges for free, Fred R. Sheehan, commissioner of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, told the federal panel.

For the final two years of higher education, Mr. Sheehan said, tuition should be based on income.

None of the proposals received so far are as sweeping as the commission had hoped, according to R. Marshall Witten, a Bennington, Vt., lawyer and a member of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, who serves on the panel.

"Even some of the more interesting and attractive proposals we've gotten ... are not global," he said.

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