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Dozens of public universities have embarked on “course redesigns,” overhauling the structure of many classes to reduce costs. Missouri State University, for example, plans to dramatically alter its psychology classes. By using more undergraduate assistants, digital learning, online textbooks with built-in assessments for individual students and other measures, the changes are expected to cut the university’s average cost per student from $73 to $60 when the updated course is rolled out next fall.

Course-redesign savings usually aren’t passed directly to students, but any measure that eases the pressure on strained university budgets can help slow the growth of annual tuition increases.

But those small-scale changes only chip away at the problem, and many think true solutions must begin with Washington.

Role of federal government

Critics of the federal financial-aid program argue that no one in the system is held accountable — neither the institutions, nor their students. The Obama administration recently implemented changes that forgive students’ debts after 20 years, and limit their monthly loan payments to 10 percent of discretionary income.

Those measures, many think, create an incentive for colleges to hike tuition rates, since they’re guaranteed to receive full payment from taxpayers. At the same time, students have little motivation to shop around, since it’s become increasingly unlikely they’ll have to repay the full amount they owe.

“What kind of a system do we have in this country where people who have gone to college and worked for 20 years still aren’t making enough of a salary to pay back a loan?” Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican and chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce higher education subcommittee, said recently. “What are we saying about the jobs these people are getting that we have to subsidize a system of education that is so costly that even 20 years of work can’t pay it off? What are we teaching them? What kind of responsibility do they have for their own education?”

Federal money now accounts for about 35 percent of higher-education spending. Over the past three decades, federal Pell Grant awards have roughly kept pace with tuition increases, and many think lawmakers need to dramatically alter the way government assistance is awarded.

“The only way you’ll see changes on a large scale is through external pressures. [Universities] will raise tuition because they can,” said Carol A. Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit organization that assists universities with course redesigns and other cost-cutting efforts.

“I think something has to give. All of these pressures are coming together, but the problem is, somebody has to have the guts to step up to higher education and say, ‘You’ve got to do something about this.’”