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Politics Swirl In Higher Education Cost Study


Charged with finding ways to reduce college costs, the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education has postponed the release of its final report after preliminary drafts drew criticism from the Republican legislators who appointed the commission.

The bipartisan, 11-member commission was established in May to study increases in tuition and the costs of running a college or university. Its final report was expected last Thursday, but Republican lawmakers involved with the appointment of the commission balked at preliminary drafts that said college is still a bargain.

"Any suggestion that we don't have a [cost] crisis flies in the face of common sense," said representatives William R. Goodling (R-Pa.) and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Cal.) in a joint press release last Tuesday--two days before the commission would meet again.

"It was a legislative mandate of this commission to...give recommendations to contain and cut those costs. It was not their legislative mandate to debate whether there was a crisis or not," said Jay A. Diskey, director of communication for the House Education and Workforce Committee, which oversees the commission and is chaired by Goodling.

"We asked them for apples, and they decided to debate whether there were apples at all," Diskey said, though he noted that the commission still has time before releasing its final report.

A preliminary version of the report indicated the commission was satisfied that tuition increases were justified and have become more moderate in recent years.

"There is literally a college for every pocketbook and purpose," the draft read. It went on to compare the cost of tuition for most full-time undergraduates to that of a "decent used car."

But at the commission's Dec. 4 meeting, William E. Trout, the commission's chair and the president of Belmont University, called on higher education to "redouble its effort to contain cost."

In an interview last Friday, Trout denied that the commission changed its focus.

"We have been on a course that continues to evolve, and that has been a consistent course," he said.

Harvard's Office of Government, Community and Public Affairs has been working to convince government officials that the high price of a Harvard education is justified by the high costs it faces as a research institution.

The commission's preliminary recommendations have included increasing disclosure of how colleges spend their money and launching an advertising campaign to better educate the public on financial aid options.

The commission's report is now expected to be released in January.

McKeon's spokesperson, David J. Foy, said the representative was pleased with the commission's decision to postpone its report to Congress.

"They have listened to us and are revising their report to get it more along the lines of...their original charge to begin with--to explain why college costs are so high and coming up with specific recommendations for cutting them," Foy said.

Regarding the preliminary draft, he said, "It seemed to be too focused on explaining what a great bargain college is and that college costs haven't risen that high. That wasn't what their job is."

Interest groups have expressed concern that the commission--which includes six college presidents--is not sufficiently representative to make the bold recommendations needed to really affect change.

"Congress set this up to not do much," said Ivan Frishberg, the higher-education-project director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"[It's] a little of the fox looking after the hen house," he added, referring to the self-regulatory aspect of the commission.

Erica F. Adelsheimer, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association, agreed.

"We have always felt it was unfortunate that students and families were not represented on the commission," she said.

The homogeneous backgrounds of the commission members are a function of the appointment process. Commission members were chosen individually by senators, representatives and President Clinton--and each wanted their nominee to be an expert in the field, making the choice of a parent or college student far less likely.

--The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.

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