Public Often Unaware of College Cost Options, Panel Told

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Too many high school students are unaware of their options when choosing a college, leading many to believe that a postsecondary education is out of their price range, a group of college presidents and educators told a House panel last week. Browse Education Week's 'Web Connection' Your Best On-line Source for Education Products and Services

Even though college tuition increases have dramatically outpaced inflation over the past decade, there are still affordable alternatives, the group said.

"The public tends to vastly overestimate the costs of college," said Stanley Ikenberry, the president of the American Council on Education, a higher education umbrella group here. "The vast majority of students don't attend high-priced institutions."

In fact, only about 12 percent of students attend colleges whose tuition is $14,000 or more a year, Mr. Ikenberry said.

The House Postsecondary Education, Training, and Lifelong Learning Subcommittee is exploring ways for the federal government to help colleges control costs as part of its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Leveling Off

The education experts who addressed the subcommittee gave several explanations for cost increases: more technology needed to teach subjects, less support from states, and the increasing demands for remedial education and special support services. In addition, they said, students want better services in such areas as extracurricular activities, athletic facilities, and dining-hall food.

Another problem is that the public has long assumed that the higher the cost of tuition, the better the overall education, said Samuel Speck, the president of Muskingum College in Ohio. One consultant advised the college's administrators not to cut tuition because it would look bad, he said.

Regardless, tuition increases are beginning to level off, and now postsecondary institutions are learning to cut costs, the group said.

Parents have become less willing to stand for high costs and large tuition increases, Mr. Speck said. When Muskingum's administrators decided to cut tuition, they saw an enrollment increase of 35 percent, an influx of transfer students, and higher retention rates.

And when Michigan State University agreed to hold its tuition increases to the rate of inflation, the college found ways to save money, said M. Peter McPherson, the university's president.

"It forced us to be more careful," he said. "We found we could do some things differently instead of spending more money."

Members of the higher education associations agreed that more tuition assistance and fewer regulations from the federal government would help them control costs.

Lawmakers' Questions

But House members did not let the colleges off the hook entirely.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said he has seen colleges increase administrative positions, while allowing some professors generous vacations and reduced teaching loads. He also questioned suggestions to replace some teachers with computer programs and other classroom technology.

"My greatest learning experiences were from doggone tough teachers," Mr. Castle said.

And several members questioned the need for remedial education classes. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., said she was concerned that elementary and secondary schools were not providing enough instruction to prepare students for college-level work. "Colleges should not have to be tutoring students in writing skills and basic mathematics," she said.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the subcommittee chairman, said he plans to file legislation that would establish a task force to study college costs and advise lawmakers on which federal regulations to cut.

The higher education representatives advised prospective students to consider community colleges and in-state universities, and to find out about financial-aid packages offered through the colleges instead of the government.

"They may not be able to afford the institution they wish to attend, but they can afford some institution that will meet their needs," said Bette Landman, the chairwoman of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education.

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