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Congress Considers Bill To Penalize Tuition Hikes

By Emily S. High, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Saying he wants to stop the “frightening trend” of sharp college tuition increases, a Republican member of Congress has proposed penalizing schools that implement “phenomenal increases” in tuition.

Harvard—which recently announced that undergraduate term bills will increase by 5.5 percent next year—would be one of many schools targeted by the measure, proposed in a speech last month by Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

Under McKeon’s proposal, colleges which raise tuition by twice the rate of inflation—which currently stands at about 2.6 percent—would be required to submit a detailed plan for preventing future tuition increases to the Department of Education.

If a college again raised tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation, it would be subject to sanctions under McKeon’s proposal, including ineligibility for federal grants for student aid, such as work-study.

One of Harvard’s top lobbyists criticized McKeon’s proposal, saying that it does not adequately consider the nuances of university finances.

“His approach doesn’t really take into account the real complexities of higher education economies and particularly doesn’t take into account the significant amount of financial aid that is provided,” said Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations.

Casey added that students at schools that lack sizable endowments—and the ability to dip into coffers and make up for lost federal funds—could be harmed if the proposal is enacted.

“If universities lose the opportunity to provide federal grants and loans, and don’t have the financial wherewithal to supplant that, it might be students indirectly harmed,” Casey said.

When he announced the proposal last month to the Education Finance Council, a non-profit in his home state, McKeon said he knew that it would impose a hardship on many colleges.

“I recognize the burden that this will place on colleges and universities,” McKeon said. “However, America would face a far greater burden if college-qualified students are continually barred from attending college because of unreasonable cost increases.”

Facing a bear economy, colleges across the country and closer to home have announced sharp increases in tuition: Yale by 4.6 percent, MIT by 4.9 percent and Boston College by 5.7 percent.

Four-year public colleges, which would also be affected by McKeon’s proposed bill, have also announced major tuition increases. In 2003, Massachusetts public universities will increase their tuition by 24 percent.

College affordability has long been a pet issue for McKeon, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Twenty-first Century Competitiveness.

In the late 1990s, Congress passed amendments he proposed to the Higher Education Act to cut student loan interest rates and to streamline the current federal financial aid system.

At this stage—before McKeon’s plan has even come up for debate—the proposal’s fate is uncertain.

“I believe that because of this unconventional war, we must be fit on all fronts including the education of our future leaders,” he said in his speech. “We do not have the luxury of allowing one generation of American students to fall through the cracks.”

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