Congress looks to take the mystery out of college costs, but critics see more paperwork
Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Updated: Sunday, March 20, 2011 18:03
WASHINGTON-Thirteen thousand dollars.That's the average cost of a year of college for in-state students. Make it more than $32,000 for those attending private schools.
But thanks to complicated financial aid formulas, what undergraduates really pay for their degree is a much more complex equation. Now Congress is trying to take the mystery out of the forever-rising costs of higher education by mandating that colleges provide students and their parents more information about how much the average student pays for school, what kind of tuition help they might be able to secure and which universities offer the best bang for the buck. Congress is also calling for an annual "blacklist" of schools with the steepest cost increases.
Critics wonder whether the measures will provide real financial relief or just create extra paperwork for colleges.
"A list that has the impression of a good guys list ... can make a modest difference," said Robert Shireman, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an organization that researches ways to make college more attainable for students. But, he added, it probably would not by itself greatly reduce the financial burden many university graduates face.
The measure is now in conference committee as lawmakers seek to iron out the differences between House and Senate bills. If approved, it would create an online database with information on how much colleges cost and what an average student would end up paying after financial aid is doled out. The site would also provide data on schools' graduation rates and faculty and student demographics, much as numerous college guide books already do.
The federal report would also highlight the schools whose costs have gone up the least and most. Universities with the biggest increases would be required to explain to Congress how they would cut future costs.
The form the government uses to calculate financial aid would be reduced from seven pages to two, a move that will save time for students and parents. The bill also proposes a pilot program that would provide students a college aid estimate during their junior year of high school, rather than having to wait until their senior year. That would give families an earlier prediction of how much assistance they might receive.
This legislation comes on the heels of other federal efforts to reduce the cost of loans. In 2007, Congress passed a law that will cut the interest rate on federal student loans in half over the next four years. Students who have worked in public service for at least 10 years after graduation may also have the rest of their debt forgiven.
In May, the Department of Education purchased some college loans after private lenders said they would not be able to make loans to other students because of the credit crunch.
The average cost of a public four-year school for the 2007-08 school year was $13,589 for an in-state student. The private college cost averaged $32,307 this past school year, up 6 percent from the year before, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT test used by many colleges to help gauge the quality of applicants.
Some college officials applaud the new federal effort aimed at disclosing more college cost information.
"The bill has a strong emphasis on transparency of costs," said Scott Sudduth, assistant vice president of federal relations at the University of Chicago. "We think that it's going to help make a more informed consumer."
But other college officials worry that the new reporting requirements will raise costs, not lower them.
Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said colleges have been hard hit by the rising costs of fuel, technology and labor, and that Congress should address those problems rather than adding additional reporting requirements that would require staff to crunch numbers, resulting in a cost that has to be passed on to students.
"What is government's role?" she asked. "To add to or alleviate costs?"
She and others noted that Internet sites already offer tables on how much different colleges might cost students at different family income levels.
Melissa Wagoner, spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Congress tried to minimize any added burden by ensuring that most of the additional requirements make use of data that colleges already provide the Education Department. She said only two of the 26 information provisions are new.
She said the new site would be more comprehensive, with more data and detailed demographic information.
Still, smaller colleges said they worry that they will be punished for having smaller endowments and fewer resources than other schools. They say that their tuitions may be higher, but that they offer unique college experiences students couldn't enjoy at larger schools.
Others say the bill might just provide the incentive colleges need to cut costs.
(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.