Federal File

November 12, 2003 1 min read

Nosing Around

Federal lawmakers won’t need an independent counsel, or an official congressional inquiry, to pinpoint the main victims of tuition increases at college campuses around the country.

Identifying the root cause of those price hikes hasn’t proved as simple a task.

As worries that low- and middle-income students are being priced out of college grow, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have offered strikingly different proposals in Congress on whom should be held most accountable for keeping campus costs in check.

A few weeks ago, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., introduced a long-awaited bill that would strip colleges and universities of federal financial-aid subsidies if they continued to raise tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation, beginning in 2011.

That proposal, offered as part of the ongoing reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, reflects GOP accusations that college leaders are undisciplined spenders who pass unnecessary costs on to students. Rep. McKeon’s bill drew an angry reaction from college lobbyists, who say state budget cuts—not fiscal excess—are to blame for rising tuition.

That argument seemed to echo in a bill offered on Oct. 28 by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who traced tuition hikes at least partly back to the statehouse door. His proposal would require states to maintain spending on higher education by at least 90 percent of the previous year’s level—or lose access to increases in federal Pell Grants, work- study aid, and other federal assistance included in his bill.

Sen. Kennedy’s bill proposes raising the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to $4,500; giving students more options for refinancing college loans; and closing what the senator says are overgenerous loopholes in federal loan laws that are a boon to lenders. The bill would succeed at “getting rid of excess profits for banks and making students the winners,” Mr. Kennedy said in a statement.

David Shreve, a senior committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ office in Washington, said states were faced with stark budget choices, given the ailing economy over the past few years. Dictating where they spend money would only punish them needlessly, he said.

“The federal government,” he said, “should not stick its nose in this issue.”

— Cavanagh