Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Harvard once cost less than $100 a year. In 1825, students paid $55 in tuition. Now, it costs more than $27,000 — and don’t forget room and board.

It’s not just comparisons to the 19th century that highlight the higher price tag of a college education. From 2001 to 2003, average tuition increased by 9 percent, federal researchers said.

The soaring cost of higher education has resulted in some middle-class students being priced out of top schools, says C.D. Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland at College Park.

“How did we get into this mess?” Mr. Mote said at a forum on college costs earlier this month. “There’s a resegregation happening that’s not based on race … but on income. We need to think of creative mechanisms to have top-class universities at [affordable costs].”

In 1990, full-time dependent undergraduates paid $2,900 in tuition and fees at public four-year institutions. By 2000, the average cost per academic year had risen to $4,300, according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a research branch of the Department of Education.

Although the number of grants available to students also has increased, the NCES said, the cost of college remains higher today than it did a decade ago.

“Cost is spiraling way ahead of inflation,” said Gregg Easterbrook, contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly who moderated this month’s forum at the National Press Club. “I’m beginning to worry that households below the median income can’t send their kids to college.”

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, expressed similar worries.

“If a student can’t get into school — that’s a double tragedy,” Mr. McKeon said. “First, they won’t get in, and second, they won’t have … life satisfaction if they get up and don’t do the job they like. This is a state, student, parent and federal problem.”

The forum’s panelists — including Jennifer Washburn of the New America Foundation and Gene W. Hickok Jr., deputy secretary of the Department of Education — pointed to many causes of rising college costs, including the competitive process of recruiting, students’ staying in school longer and especially the profile of graduates.

“We need to be more discretionary buyers,” Mr. McKeon said. “A lot of people think they need to go to Cal Tech. I encourage young students to start at the community college. There are so many kinds of universities. There are lots of different ways to go.”

He added: “You don’t need to go to Harvard. Parents need to counsel their kids not to spend $15,000 the first year.”

Universities’ obsession with research also has revved prices, Miss Washburn said.

“Research is an expensive enterprise,” she said. “National reports [on college rankings] like U.S. News & World Report focus more on research and prestige — not on the quality of undergraduate instruction. … We need research institutions, but too many schools are not cut out to emulate [major research universities such as] Stanford and the University of Michigan. … This is just inflating costs.”

Mr. Hickok agreed.

“We’ve allowed research to be the indicator of prestige,” the Education Department official said. “We need to do a better job [weighing] how much a student spends versus how much he gains.”

College rankings don’t measure “quality of education,” Mr. Hickok said, and Mr. Easterbrook noted that amid concerns about rising tuition, there are also worries about academic decline.

“I wish there was a wisdom index,” Mr. Easterbrook said. “Education is supposed to be about education. Today, the rigor is perceived to be less. The hours are shorter. Credits are less.”

Miss Washburn worried that schools have replaced true learning with job training.

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said. “It’s critical that we preserve an undergraduate education focused on reading, writing and critical thinking — a strong liberal-arts foundation — rather than reducing education to purely utilitarian economic outcomes.

“The most important asset to develop in the United States is bright, critical, thinking people,” Miss Washburn added. “If you just train people for specific jobs, you won’t cultivate the type of skills needed to survive in this competitive economy.”

Although Mr. McKeon has introduced the Affordability in Higher Education Act — a bill that seeks to hold colleges accountable for their cost increases and make price information more readily available to students and parents — he said he does not want Congress legislating academic quality.

“I don’t think government should be involved in defining what quality is,” Mr. McKeon said. “Consumers should decide. … Our job is to make [education] available.”

Mr. Hickok warned against a federal role in setting either tuition or the content of college education.

“The federal government shouldn’t be involved,” said the deputy secretary of the Department of Education. “Traditionally, the department has — for good reason — stayed away from tuition and curriculum. … But consumers need adequate and complete information on rates to make comparisons between institutions.”

The United States remains an international leader in higher education, Mr. Hickok added.

“The whole world comes here to college,” he said. “The world envies us, and I don’t want us to fall behind.”

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