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Sinking Feeling

You could say that Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon's proposal for federal price controls on college tuition has gone over like a lead balloon.

But aside from trafficking dangerously in the realm of cliché, that description might inadvertently underestimate the buoyancy of that particular metal. Because the reaction of the higher education community, since the California Republican (yes, Republican) first suggested the idea of limiting tuition increases March 5, has ranged from the merely scornful to the apocalyptic.

"In only 48 months," predicted American Council on Education President David Ward in a statement on the group's Web site, "this bill would dismantle a system of higher education that took this nation more than 200 years to build."

Rep. McKeon's proposal, which is not yet in bill form and has no co-sponsors, would limit tuition hikes to two times the rate of inflation. If a college exceeded that amount, it would have to reduce that rate of increase the next year or face sanctions from the federal Department of Education. One of those possible penalties would be the loss of government financial assistance.

The immediate reaction was that the proposal sounded like a cousin of the wildly unpopular wage and price controls instituted by President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s. Mr. Nixon, of course, was also a Republican, and the GOP at least in theory is averse to heavy-handed federal intervention in the marketplace.

"We're absolutely stunned that there could be a Republican proposal for cost control," Becky Timmons, the government- relations director for the ACE, said in an interview shortly after Rep. McKeon made his proposal. "That in itself is kind of breathtaking. The whole idea is anathema to the idea of free enterprise."

Mr. McKeon, in an interview with Education Week, acknowledged the ideological disconnect.

"I'm a conservative," he said, "I don't think we should be getting involved in setting tuitions."

But he said Congress can't stand by as colleges, buffeted by stagnant or sagging state government support of higher education, constantly hike tuition, sometimes by double digits, and then count on increasing federal financial aid to bear the brunt. Mr. McKeon is consulting with the higher education community, a McKeon spokeswoman said, and the bill's language is being "finalized," but she said it might be several weeks before it is submitted.

—Ben Wear

Vol. 22, Issue 28, Page 19

Published in Print: March 26, 2003, as Federal File

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