Price Back in the Spotlight

In recent days, members of Congress and Education Secretary Arne Duncan alike have struck a common refrain: colleges charge too much, and new and innovative solutions are needed to make higher education more affordable.

On Wednesday, two experts on higher education cost and affordability and two university presidents testified before a Congressional subcommittee on how institutions should change to make college more affordable for students. The day before, in a speech to the Federal Student Aid conference in Las Vegas, Duncan depicted rising college prices as an urgent problem, listing a wide range of solutions.

In recent months, the Occupy Wall Street movement has intensified concern about student debt — and, as a result, about the price that students and families pay for college. When the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently announced in a quarterly report that it had significantly undercounted student loans and now estimates the current total of outstanding loans at $845 billion, not $550 billion, it seemed likely only to add fuel to the fire (other calculations have outstanding loan debt at or nearing $1 trillion).

Now (as many times before), elected officials are trying to join the conversation. But whether that conversation will lead to any meaningful change seems uncertain; the Congressional hearing was only the latest development in a series of efforts, from a national commission in 1998 to provisions in the Higher Education Act reauthorization a decade later, to stop the inexorable rise of tuition.

Duncan called on college officials to “think more creatively — and with much greater urgency” about the rising price of college. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce’s higher education subcommittee, said institutions “must do their part to streamline costs and lessen the burden for students whenever possible.”

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