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Citing a “college cost crisis,” Rep. Buck McKeon introduced an adjunct to the Higher Education Act (HEA) last Thursday that would withhold student aid funds from schools that enact sharp tuition increases.
McKeon, D-Calif., said his bill would not harm students because colleges and universities would in all likelihood choose to comply with the proposed clause—which would set limits on permissible tuition increases.
“Hopefully, nobody will ever be sanctioned,” he said. “They’ll have five years, about eight years even with the time needed to pass this law, to get their costs in line.”
Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations, said that McKeon’s bill—which along with the HEA is still in the early stages of debate—was unlikely to pass in its present form.
He also said that the University would not support the bill as drafted.
The HEA, which governs most federal student financial aid programs, must be regularly reapproved or redrafted. As it stands, the act covers two types of aid. Some funding, like Pell Grants, is disbursed directly to students, while other programs, like federal work study and Perkins Loans, provide funds to colleges which then distribute them to students.
McKeon’s bill would require colleges to post their tuition and fees on an easy-to-access website beginning in 2005. According to the proposed legislation, institutions whose costs rose at more than twice the rate of inflation for three consecutive years would be required to submit an explanation rise and a plan to slow the increase to the Department of Education.
If costs continued to rise as quickly over the following three years, the bill states that those colleges would no longer receive federal funding that does not go directly to students, such as work study, rendering students at those colleges and universities ineligible for that type of aid.
Less needy students would likely be the most affected by the bill because they generally do not qualify for direct federal aid—such as Pell Grants—which specifically target lower income students, according to Tim McDonough, the American Council on Education’s director of public affairs.
McDonough said he worried that the law would harm both colleges and students. Government price controls have been historically ineffective, and if implemented could result in a decline in educational quality, he said.
But McDonough said that while McKeon’s bill has flaws, it addresses a real problem. He said the proposed website would make it easier for students to access cost information, and attention to the problem of rising costs is welcome—though price controls are not.
“There are some things in the bill that we like, and we’ve got a lot of respect for Mr. McKeon as a lawmaker. He’s a thoughtful legislator,” McDonough said.
Casey expressed similar reactions to the proposal.
“There are a couple of great aspects of the legislation, like its recognition that federal regulations on higher education are one of things that help drive up costs,” he said.
But he said the legislation looks only at “sticker price,” ignoring institution-based financial aid that schools like Harvard provide.
However, McKeon said that his bill was not aimed at elite institutions like Harvard, and instead is designed to direct federal aid toward students who couldn’t afford to attend any college.
“When the federal government got involved in higher education, the aim was to help needy students,” he said. “Forty-eight percent of lower income people who graduated high school and are fully qualified to attend college can’t, and 28 percent can’t even attend community college. That’s just wrong.”
—Staff writer Kate A. Tiskus can be reached at email@example.com.
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