House Subcommittee Seeks More Ways to Shrink College Costs

November 29, 2011

Democrats and Republicans agreed on Wednesday that the rising cost of college was unsustainable, but they differed on what to do about it.

At a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on higher-education policy, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican of North Carolina, said that President Obama's recent expansion of loan forgiveness wasn't a long-term solution for the growing cost of higher education, and that colleges had to find new ways to become more affordable.

"In the current system, there's little incentive to enact lasting change," said Ms. Foxx, the panel's chair. "States, students, and parents must demand accountability for the investment" by taxpayers, and "not depend solely on the federal government," she said.

But Rep. Rubén E. Hinojosa of Texas, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, said the recent federal investment in Pell Grants, loan-forgiveness programs, and tax credits represented great strides toward tackling rising costs. He warned that as Congress looks for innovative strategies to reduce the cost of college, "it's vitally important that we do not create new obstacles for low-income, first-generation, and nontraditional and minority students." Those populations are entering college in record numbers, he said.

The discussion comes at a time when student debt levels are reaching new heights and students are protesting the cost of college around the country.

But lawmakers didn't dwell on their disagreements, as higher-education experts and chief administrators testifying before the subcommittee suggested new ways to shrink the cost of higher education, while preserving quality. Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University, said his institution had taken several steps to lower expenditures and keep tuition down, including eliminating dean positions entirely and offering full-tuition scholarships to high-achieving students.

Mr. Foster also said that federal regulations change constantly, burdening college officials with hundreds of hours of paperwork. "We spend a lot of time and energy trying to comply with and understand directions from the Department of Education," he said. "The goal posts move every year."

In response, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, a Democrat of Arizona, said that federal regulations help the government understand rising costs and prevent accidental or intentional misuse of taxpayer dollars.

Ronald E. Manahan, president of Grace College and Seminary, in Indiana, said his institution had begun offering a three-year degree to lower costs for students. Other colleges, such as Southern New Hampshire University, have offered three-year degree plans, too.

Ms. Foxx said she was impressed with an idea from Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, to measure the quality of higher education through student learning, rather than time spent in the classroom.

"I think the quality of higher education in this country is being threatened these days, and not just because of a lack of money," she said. "Perhaps the squeezing budgets have been a benefit, not a negative, because it's forcing people to look at what they're doing."