The Outcome of the Higher Education Act Will Profoundly Impact the Future of America

By Thomas V. Chema

Over the last several months, the news has been full of stories about the rising cost of a college education and tuition increases that colleges and universities, both public and private, have proposed to cover these costs.  As the father of a student and the president of a liberal arts college, I understand this issue from a number of perspectives.  The reasons behind these increases are many and complex.

At the outset, let's agree that the excellence of our colleges and universities is key to the future of America.  Today, more than ever, knowledge plays a vital role in our economy and security.  As a nation, we have long recognized the value of higher education.  The GI Bill after World War II contributed to the college education of millions of veterans.  That legislation fundamentally altered the economy of America and, indeed, of the world.

In 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which extended financial assistance not only to veterans, but to low income citizens.  This was overt acknowledgement that higher education is central to our prosperity and that all who are qualified should have the opportunity to pursue a college degree.  In the first three decades after passage of the Act, the supremacy of America's higher education was recognized around the world.  Unfortunately, we have been slipping of late.

The Education Commission of the States, a think tank that advises governors, legislators, and state education officials, reports that in 2003 the U.S. ranked 13th (not Number 1 as we had been for decades) among the industrialized nations in the number of college degrees held by our citizens.  We are going in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Part of the problem is the lack of federal support for higher education.  Every five years since 1965, Congress has reauthorized the Higher Education Act's funding of loans, grants, and other programs for college students.  Recently, this federal student aid has fallen short, imperiling the nation's competitive need for producing more college-educated citizens. Nonetheless, the way Congress is approaching the pending Re-authorization bill could make American's global competitiveness even worse.

Because of pressures on the federal budget, the growing deficit, and partisan squabbling, many in the House and the Senate object to increasing federal student aid.  One argument is that college tuition is too high, therefore Congress should not increase student aid.  This position is wrong headed and will have two unintended consequences should it prevail.

First, fewer low income students will have access to college and the opportunity to climb out of poverty.  Second, such a policy will increase the costs for those who do attend college because institutions of higher education will try to cover the slack in federal support with tuition and fee increases.  What is more, because private philanthropy cannot completely fill this financial gap, colleges will further raise tuition to offset the loss of federal student aid dollars.

Lack of Congressional support for a reasonable funding is not the only problem.  Some legislators are proposing layering federal rules and regulations on an academic system already tied up by government red tape.  One proposal would require the reporting to the federal government about early admissions and the admissions of so called "legacies."

Another proposal would lead to federal accreditation of post-secondary institutions.  A third proposal would impose federal controls on decisions colleges make about the transfer of credit hours.  Another, if adopted, would require the U.S. Department of Education to collect reams of useless data from colleges.  All of these radical proposals would lead to needless government intrusion on the campus under the guise of accountability and affordability— two new Capital Hill buzzwords.

In truth, these proposed remedies do not get to the problem of increasing costs.  And they will not work.  Congress needs to recall the premise of the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act, namely that it is important for America's prosperity and competitiveness to provide college grants and loans to our young men and women.

At Hiram College, a private institution, we understand the burden of high tuition on students and their families.  We are dealing with this by employing unique methods such our "tuition guarantee."  This guarantees that tuition and fees will remain constant over four years.  But none of these efforts will completely work if the federal government does not continue to provide adequate financial aid to students.  More than one third of Hiram students receive in excess of $7,000,000 annually in grants and loans to supplement their tuition.  Many of these students will not be able to attend Hiram — or any other college — if the federal government opts out of its responsibilities.

Please tell your Congressman and Senator: It is in America's interest to support federal student aid.  It is not in America's interest to cut aid and, at the same time, impose new bureaucratic entanglements on colleges and universities.

▲  Return to Top