- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

The steep price of a college education was targeted yesterday as the House overwhelmingly approved a massive bill that would hold colleges and universities accountable for rising costs, authorize billions of dollars in aid to students and schools, and give families more consumer information.

The bipartisan bill, approved 354-58, also renewed the Higher Education Act of 1965, the government’s main vehicle for helping people access college. The Senate has approved a similar bill, so now a final bill will be negotiated.

The measure would authorize Congress to provide some $97 billion over the next five years for programs that aid students and schools, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate from December.

Despite decades of federal funding, the price of tuition has continued to rise sharply and it’s becoming increasingly out-of-reach for average families, lawmakers said.

“For too many years, colleges and universities have increased the cost of higher education at an alarming rate, far faster than inflation or increases in families’ ability to pay,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican who helped craft the bill, wrote this week in a letter to colleagues. “The federal government has continued to increase funding for Pell Grants and other financial aid programs, but we will never truly solve the college cost crisis until we address the cost side of the equation as well.”

The higher-education bill aims to do this by pressuring colleges to rein in costs.

The White House supports the general goals but opposes the bill.

In a statement from the Office of Management and Budget Wednesday, administration officials criticized it for creating “many new federal programs” and restricting the administration’s authority to regulate the college accreditation process. It stopped short of threatening a veto though.

The wide-ranging bill would create a new Web site with key information from colleges, including pricing, graduation rates and popular majors. The Department of Education would publish an annual list of all colleges and universities, showing recent price information.

Schools with rocketing costs would have to explain the reason and form task forces control them. On the flip side, schools would be rewarded for adopting innovative cost-saving policies.

“The bill will create a higher education system that is more affordable and fairer and easier-to-navigate for consumers,” said House education panel Chairman George Miller, California Democrat.

The House yesterday adopted an amendment requiring schools to report annually how much of their endowment was spent on efforts to contain costs.

The bill’s $97 billion estimated cost is only a recommendation of how much Congress should spend. The bulk of the cost comes from the bill’s suggestion to increase the maximum Pell Grant scholarship to $9,000 per student. Congress most recently doled out a maximum Pell Grant amount of $4,310 per student. The recommended boost would cost some $67 billion over four years, the CBO estimated.

In the 2007-08 school year, the average price of a public four-year in-state college was $13,589; a public four-year, out-of-state college was $24,044; and a private four-year college was $32,307. Each had increased about 5 percent to 6 percent from their 2006-07 costs, according to the College Board.

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