Cutting college costs not an easy thing to do

With the price of higher education soaring, one congressman has a controversial plan to steady costs. Rep. Howard McKeon, R.-Calif., who heads a House subcommittee on higher-education policy, recently introduced a bill that would cap tuition increases at twice the rate of consumer inflation.

Any tuition increases over that rate would require an explanation to the U.S. Department of Education and a written plan on how the offending institution would keep future tuition increases down. Institutions that violated the cap would be penalized, and their eligibility for federal student financial aid would be jeopardized.

McKeon is brave to try to find a solution to the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Tuitions have risen 75 percent in the last decade, up to an average of $18,273 a year for private institutions and $4,081 a year for public institutions. And that doesn’t include an array of other charges on one’s college bill. So an increasing number of students have to hold full-time jobs during college or graduate with significant debt.

But Congressman McKeon is wrong to apply a fiscal straitjacket without taking a more comprehensive look at higher education.

At public institutions, rising tuitions stem largely from state-budget shortfalls, resulting from recession-reduced tax revenue and, in some states, shortsighted tax cuts. At private institutions, rising costs reflect students’ willingness to pay for top-notch facilities and professors. Such investment, supported by private demand, generally benefits society.

Surely, most institutions could find more cost-effective methods if they were pressed to do so. But if tuition caps are imposed on them, they will probably jettison less popular, though not less worthy, programs, and reduce investment in long-term projects. Our colleges and universities are the envy of the world because of their extraordinary facilities and minds: Mandatory caps could strike at the institutions’ ability to maintain such excellence.

While public institutions are still relatively affordable for middle-class Americans, too many private institutions are not.

For years, governments have dealt with this situation through a robust financial-aid program. Students (or, usually, their parents) who could afford the rising tuitions paid them, and in the process helped finance improvements in higher education. Students who couldn’t pay received financial aid from the federal and state governments and the private sector.

A way to make college more affordable is simply to provide more government support for students at both public and private institutions.

Education is one of the most worthwhile investments that governments can make, in terms of the future strength of the economy and of society in general.

But at the same time, colleges and universities must be encouraged to be more efficient. One of C. Northcote Parkinson’s laws, “Expenditure rises to meet income,” is all too apparent in America’s colleges.

In any event, an affordable and prestigious network of public and private colleges and universities, which we all want, simply cannot be accomplished without significant government support.