After a decade and then some of commissions, studies and stern warnings, Congress is poised to finally take concrete action to hold down the rising cost of a college education. A notable consensus has emerged among lawmakers of both political parties and major elements of the higher education community that sunshine and transparency are the best first steps to empower consumers and address the college cost crisis. While agreement among these parties is a feat in itself, this achievement is even more extraordinary considering the staunch objections of a few short years ago.
Today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, a bill that will lift the veil on rampant tuition increases and hold individual colleges and universities accountable for their role in pricing students out of the dream of a higher education. The legislation couples strong consumer-driven disclosure with meaningful data comparisons so that higher education consumers and policy makers alike will be able to better understand the phenomenon of rapidly rising tuitions.
After shining a spotlight on the problem, the bill encourages solutions by requiring institutions with the greatest tuition increases to form Quality Efficiency Task Forces, whose purpose is to identify what is driving the cost increases and what can be done about them. The bill also calls on states to do their part, recognizing that for public institutions in particular, state support plays a critical role.
Keeping college affordable has been a priority of mine since I came to Congress. I earned my degree later in life, an experience that has helped keep higher education at the forefront of my agenda throughout my political career. And in the 15 years I’ve spent in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising college costs have consistently topped the list of “what’s wrong” with higher education, at least in the view of American students and families.
Even the most casual observers of American higher education recognize that there are no easy answers to the college cost crisis. The quality of our institutions has long been linked to institutional diversity, consumer choice and academic autonomy. At the same time, public and private colleges and universities alike are heavily subsidized by the public in the form of taxpayer-funded financial assistance. There has always been a tension between postsecondary independence and public accountability, a balancing act that is particularly tenuous when it comes to the question of appropriate federal intervention into hyperinflationary college prices.
In the lead-up to the 1998 Higher Education Act reauthorization, I thought the most appropriate solution was to enlist higher education experts. In doing so, we established the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education. In simplest terms, the Commission recommended that colleges be required to disclose more detailed financial information, while also self-examining to identify strategies that would hold down costs. These seemingly modest recommendations were given a cool reception, to put it mildly.
After swiftly rejecting the Commission’s proposed reforms, the higher education community pledged to deal with rising tuitions independently. Lawmakers were given assurances that colleges and universities recognized the pressing need to hold down costs, and would act accordingly, without intervention. Unfortunately, it seems the college affordability gap has only grown wider in the decade since.
When we began the current HEA reform cycle in 2003, I knew colleges could no longer go it alone. Congress needed to do something. Building on the recommendations of the Commission, I proposed a College Affordability Index to help students and families better understand and compare tuition increases. Five years later, the details have been refined but the principle remains the same -- thanks to the bill we are about to consider, higher education consumers will finally be given the information they need to start exercising their power in the marketplace.
Luckily for students and families, Congressional action has not occurred in a vacuum. Colleges and universities have begun to recognize that the college cost crisis is not a figment of Congressional imagination, but a serious threat to educational equality and American competitiveness. The higher education community has also come to the conclusion that while congressional action is inevitable, institutions can still be the primary drivers of reform if they step up to the plate now and take a leadership role, rather than forcing Congress to intervene more aggressively.
Some in the higher education community continue to bury their heads in the sand and reject the very existence of a college cost crisis. Others acknowledge the problem, but spend more time criticizing our proposed solutions than offering creative responses of their own. Neither of these stances is acceptable.
Late last year, the Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved legislation that takes meaningful steps to keep college affordable. The bill will receive strong, bipartisan support in the House this week, and later this year our efforts to solve the college cost crisis will become law. College costs have dominated the 1998 and 2008 HEA reforms. Let’s hope that in another 10 years we will have finally changed the subject.
Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon of California is the senior Republican on the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.