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Commission Urges Broad Cooperation on Curbing College Costs

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A congressionally appointed panel says families should save more for college, postsecondary institutions need to rein in costs, and government at all levels must ease excessive regulations to make higher education more accessible.

The 11 members of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education approved their report on college costs--which includes 42 separate recommendations--during their final meeting last week. Congress formed the panel last year in anticipation of the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs federal student-aid programs.

If colleges and universities don't work to limit costs and lower tuition increases, "others will do it for them," said the committee's vice chairman, Barry Munitz, referring to the possibility of government regulation.

"The bottom line is to try to make college less expensive," Mr. Munitz, a former chancellor of the California State University system who now heads the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Trust, said at the meeting. "Colleges and universities are not given a divine right to act separately and independently. They must be held accountable."

The tone of the final report deviated from that of a December draft, which, in arguing against government-imposed price controls, suggested that college costs are largely exaggerated.

In an angry, public response to the draft findings, Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the panel's postsecondary education subcommittee, issued a statement reiterating the original mission of the cost panel.

"We want to remind the commission of its legislative mandate to investigate the rising costs of higher education--not to engage in a debate over whether there is a cost crisis," the representatives said. "Any suggestion that we do not have a cost crisis flies in the face of common sense."

Shedding Light

The final commission report does not advocate imposing federal cost controls to keep college tuition in check. Instead, it recommends that colleges and universities form consortia to jointly purchase goods and services, share facilities, and make costly academic programs more accessible.

It also recommends that the postsecondary community lead a public-awareness campaign to help people better understand the actual price of a college education, as well as "the returns on this investment." Individual institutions should detail how they spend money, providing facts on issues such as administrative costs, average class size, and technology expenditures, the commissioners say.

"Most colleges and universities have been poor in reporting where their money comes from and where it goes," Mr. Munitz said.

The report acknowledges that public anxiety over the price of college is real, but says that concern may be deceptive, noting the difference between an institution's "sticker price" and what students actually pay after receiving financial aid.

'More Light Than Heat'

By defining such differences, the report "sheds more light than heat on the college-cost issue," said Stanley O. Ikenberry, the president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization representing postsecondary institutions. And while the report asks colleges to put cost-saving measures higher on their agendas, Mr. Ikenberry said that many schools are already making some of the recommended changes.

The most important thing the report does, he added, is to provide a common frame of reference on college costs for lawmakers and postsecondary officials heading into the HEA reauthorization.

The report also asks that national, state, and local governments free colleges from burdensome rules that, for example, hold institutions handling small amounts of toxic substances to the same standards as "manufacturing enterprises handling the same materials by the ton." Congress also must simplify how financial aid is delivered, the report asserts, and provide more money for existing financial-aid programs.

Finally, saying that the report is as much a statement to the American public as it is to Congress, the commissioners suggested that people must understand that a good education is not necessarily the most expensive. Through careful financial planning, the report says, students and families must "shoulder part of the load."

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