How the University determines its tuition rates and financial aid policies could run into federal interference from a provision in a version of the Higher Education Bill that passed the House last week. The measure is designed to allow Congress to meddle with college tuition increases by requiring schools with continual hikes to create task forces that would find ways to cut costs, or face fines. The provision’s limited focus on tuition alone ignores the complicated factors that affect university budgets, and it is essentially an effort to excuse Congress’s failure to maintain its commitment to offering substantial student aid. A Senate bill that lacks this provision is a better choice.
Under the House bill, any university that receives federal student aid funds would included in a “College Affordability Index” to make Department of Education data on tuition increases accessible to the public. Schools that raise tuition by more than double the rate of inflation for three years running would be required by law to justify their decision to the federal government. A university that refuses to comply would be fined. The lucky universities that rank in the top 5 percent of the index will be required to appoint a task force to find ways to trim down the school’s budget.
This legislation will do little to bring real accountability to colleges. Focusing only on a university’s tuition in the interest of keeping college costs affordable is a decidedly one-dimensional approach. It places the blame squarely on them for above-average tuition increases, ignoring that public university might have raised tuition in response to cuts in state appropriations – something that in recent years has been a large problem for universities in Michigan.
The idea of compiling a laundry list of profligate universities suggests that Congress has prioritized discouraging tuition increases over promoting overall academic excellence. A university dependent on state sponsorship as opposed to private endowments often cannot sustain keeping tuition costs low and financial aid bountiful.
The Congressional “raid on student aid” is a long-standing phenomenon that further puts public colleges in a bind. Need-based Pell Grants each year pay for a shrinking chunk of tuition, thanks to the lack of adequate increases to keep up with tuition, or even inflation. More recently, Congress voted to trim student loan funding, offering fewer federally subsidized loans than previously planned and causing interest rates on some college loans to rise.
Improving aid packages rather than pointing the finger at universities would be a far more effective way to address college affordability. While tuition increases can make paying for college more difficult for all students, extensive need-based aid can alleviate the burden for students from low-income and middle-income families. Instead, this narrow approach to a broad problem is making Congress an enemy of higher education. Making Congressional supervision a supposed check on college tuition rates would only make it harder to maintain both their academic quality and their ability – through financial aid initiatives such as the University’s M-PACT program – to provide financial aid where the federal government has failed to do so.