Bruininks: Federal tuition controls would force University program cuts

Some in Congress have proposed punishing schools for tuition increases.

Patricia Drey

Talk in Congress of reining in tuition prices has University officials concerned.

Federal regulations preventing steep tuition increases would be disastrous, University officials said, but some students disagree and said they are glad the issue is being discussed.

The Higher Education Act’s re-authorization has spurred federal legislators to propose controlling increasing tuition nationwide.

The act, which governs most federal financial aid for students and institutions, could be re-authorized this congressional session.

If tuition controls were already in place, state budget cuts would have forced the University to cut additional classes, professors and services, University President Bob Bruininks said.

“The country has been going through a recession and the state and federal governments have really hammered institutions of higher education,” Bruininks said. “The federal government has not done a good job of maintaining support for students.”

Placing tuition controls is bad public policy, Bruininks said, and colleges and universities are more likely to find ways to cut costs on their own through market competition.

Typically, price controls decrease the quality or the amount of the commodity, said applied economics professor Terry Roe, who is also on the University Senate Finance and Planning Committee.

Fixed low-level tuition at many European colleges and universities limited the number of people who could get higher education, he said.

Price restrictions would likely have the same effect on U.S. institutions, Roe said.

“Either we would restrict the number of people that could get in, or the quality would deteriorate,” Roe said.

University cultural studies and comparative literature senior Julia Rybak, a member of the Forum for a Democratic University, said federal tuition controls would not devastate the University.

“If they prioritized correctly, they wouldn’t have to sacrifice quality for accessibility,” Rybak said.

For example, the University could use existing buildings rather than building new ones to cut costs without cutting quality, Rybak said.

The forum is a group of students, faculty and staff that advocates prioritizing fair labor practices and affordability at the University.

Although the University could handle federal regulation, Congress should not try to control tuition without also increasing funding, Rybak said.

University director of federal relations John Engelen said he is not confident Congress has enough time to re-authorize the entire Higher Education Act this session. Congress must re-authorize the act every five years.

Although there has been talk in Congress about college tuition, there are few specific proposals about how to deal with it, he said.

The Affordability in Higher Education Act, by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., would penalize colleges and universities that raise cost of attendance at more than twice the rate of inflation. If the rate of increase is not reduced within one year, the institution would lose eligibility for federal money, according to a press release from McKeon’s office.

Jake Elo, chairman of the student representatives to the Board of Regents, said he is not in favor of a tuition reduction plan that would punish students. But he said he hopes federal legislators continue to propose ideas to deal with the issue.

“It’s an important issue, and as long as someone’s taking an interest in it, hopefully, we can get something done,” he said.