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Alarm on Escalating College Costs Sounded

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If the nation's educational and political leaders don't act soon to curtail the skyrocketing costs of higher education, millions of students wishing to pursue college degrees could be shut out of the system by 2015, according to a report released last week.

Public financial support for colleges and universities has flattened while the costs and demands for postsecondary education are increasing, the report says. As a result, institutions of higher education are hiking tuitions sky-high and still face "a catastrophic shortfall in funding," according to the results of a two-year study conducted by the Commission on National Investment in Higher Education.

The commission was established by the New York City-based Council for Aid to Education, a nonprofit subsidiary of the RAND Corp.

Commission members were "very surprised when we looked at what 18-year-olds will face in 2015," said one of the panel's two co-chairmen, Joseph L. Dionne, the chairman and chief executive officer of the McGraw-Hill Companies. "We had no idea of the magnitude of the crisis they face."

The report, "Breaking the Social Contract: The Fiscal Crisis in Higher Education," calls on politicians and public and private college officials to share responsibility in routing the higher education sector off its current track.

Politicians need to come up with more public funding for higher education, the report says, but not before postsecondary institutions make major structural changes to ensure that they use scarce resources efficiently. College officials first "have to demonstrate a willingness to be more productive," Mr. Dionne said in an interview.

Redefining Colleges

The study shows that while total public funding for higher education has kept pace with inflation over the past 20 years, it has not reflected a change in the actual cost per student, which has increased by 40 percent since 1976. As a result, colleges and universities have been forced to make up the difference by raising tuition and fees.

The average cost of tuition per student, when adjusted for inflation, doubled from 1976 to 1995, the report says.

In 1996, students paid an average of $2,966 for tuition and fees at an in-state public university, and $12,823 at private institutions, according to the New York City-based College Board.

Colleges and universities can become more efficient, the report says, by emphasizing faculty productivity and assessing the value of certain programs or departments.

The report also suggests that colleges set up ways by which they can better share resources, and recommends that individual institutions concentrate on what they do best, Mr. Dionne said, rather than trying to "be all things for all people."

James B. Appleberry, the president of the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said many colleges and universities have already begun to institute the changes recommended by the report.

"We're already doing it," said Mr. Appleberry, whose group represents 423 state colleges and universities. "But the federal and state governments are not coming up with their part of the pie."

For More Information: Copies of "Breaking the Social Contract: The Fiscal Crisis in Higher Education" are available for $7 each from the Council for Aid to Education, 342 Madison Ave., Suite 1532, New York, N.Y. 10173; (212) 661-5800; fax (212) 661-9766.

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