NAICU Washington Update

College Affordability on Front Burner Once Again

December 19, 2011

Driven by stories of large student debt burden and worries about paying for the rapid growth in Pell Grant spending, Congress and the administration have once again set their sights on college affordability.

In late November, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged attendees at the annual Federal Student Aid conference to "look ahead and start thinking more creatively - and with much greater urgency - about how to contain the spiraling costs of college and reduce the burden of student debt on our nation's students."  Duncan went on to describe the "iron triangle" comprised of quality, access, and cost - arguing that the three are not mutually exclusive choices for colleges.

A day later, the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing on "Keeping College Within Reach: Discussing Ways Institutions Can Streamline Costs and Reduce Tuition."  Among the witnesses was Grace College President Ronald Manahan, who described his institution's recent adoption of a three-year degree option.

Next up, the White House invited 10 college presidents to a December 5 meeting with President Obama to discuss college affordability and productivity.  While most were heads of large public universities and systems, also attending were two private college presidents:  Larry Shinn of Berea College and Jared Cohon of Carnegie Mellon University.  Jane Wellman, with the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, and Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis participated in the meeting as well.  Both Wellman and Merisotis also testified at the earlier House subcommittee hearing.

The common thread running through all these events is a focus on productivity, or how to get more for less, in higher education. Past federal policy debates about college affordability have included failed attempts to impose price controls, along with some more successful efforts to increase transparency.  Transparency initiatives now in place include the Department of Education's "College Affordability and Transparency" lists, first published last July, and the requirement for net price calculators on all colleges' websites.

The emphasis on productivity has somewhat shifted policy discussions on college costs and pricing.  Policymakers continue to support programs that help students pay for college. At the same time, though, they are likely to up the ante on expectations for the institutions serving those students.  Two emerging themes in recent weeks are that colleges, first, must become more "efficient" by fundamentally rethinking how they deliver education; and, second, must offer "proof" of their success in terms of student retention, graduation, and job placement.

These new emphases have the potential to be positive, especially for independent colleges.  It's an opportunity for colleges to highlight the many ways they're already addressing these issues, and to make the point that limiting the federal role in improving and measuring higher education outcomes can be more useful than adding requirements and regulation.  NAICU institutions already have a compelling story to tell in their retaining and graduating students, and the contributions those graduates ultimately make to society in their personal and professional lives.

At the same time, this shift in policy could have a negative effect if federal attempts to improve program efficiencies lead to lower quality, to reduced access, or to massive data collection burdens that result in little or no meaningful information. Despite Secretary Duncan's optimism that cost savings need not come at the expense of quality or access, the challenges to maintaining such a balance are daunting.

In beginning to examine these issues, the White House and House education leaders have reached out to NAICU and other Washington higher education associations directly.  NAICU already has provided them with examples of ways in which our colleges are addressing college affordability.  The association continues to update and expand these examples, and asks members to forward additional examples from their own campuses of efforts in improving efficiencies and documenting outcomes.  (Please forward examples to

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