It was “game on” this week when it comes to the issue of addressing college cost, but much remains to be done.
The week began with a pleasant Sunday afternoon surprise – an announcement by Harvard President Lawrence Summers that Harvard College would no longer expect a parental contribution to a student’s education if the family income is below $40,000 a year. He also announced that the expected parental contribution would drop significantly for those parents whose annual income is between $40,000 and $60,000 per year.
Summers made his announcement during his keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization representing all types of higher education institutions, public and private, two-year and four-year. Harvard’s action is important in the long term because one of the ways that college, in general, can stay affordable is if the most selective institutions take steps to limit what they charge at their schools.
You may recall that, a couple of months ago, I described what has been referred to as the “arms race” of higher education. In order to become a “selective institution,” a school often decides it must have better facilities, “brand-name” teachers and a niche it becomes known for in a particular area of research.
To accomplish these goals, especially in a concurrent fashion, takes an enormous financial investment. For public institutions that purse such a strategy, much of the “arms” financing will come from a state budgets. Independent schools will probably either tap their endowment or conduct a fund-raising campaign aimed at accomplishing a specific goal.
In either case, however, the preferred choice of funds is never enough, and the collection box inevitably is put in front of families, in the form of increased tuition, fees or living expenses.
While Harvard’s decision alone does not – and could never – unilaterally end the higher education “arms race,” it is still an important step in the right direction, especially when combined with recent announcements by other selective schools, such as the University of Virginia and The George Washington University. UVA declared that they it will provide grants, in lieu of loans, to low-income students. GW informed prospective parents that the cost they will bear in the first year of a four-year college experience for their child is the same cost that they will bear for the remaining three years. The University of Illinois announced a policy several months ago that is nearly identical to GW.
It was the collective weight of these announcements, plus the commitment of school groups such as the American Association of State College and Universities to work with their members to keep college costs as low as possible for families, that caused U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon to announce on Tuesday of this week that he would be withdrawing at least part of his proposed legislation to curb college costs. Specifically, he has abandoned his plan to put a set of penalties in place for schools that more than double the rate of inflation in their annual tuition increases.
These voluntary school actions, in addition to a flurry of activity in the Senate Budget Committee related to the setting aside of necessary funds for student aid, signaled that it was “game on” this week when it comes to addressing the issue of college costs. By no means, however, is it “game over.”
That’s why we at College Parents of America remain vigilant in our desire to keep college costs as low as possible for all families, and to help those students in need of financial assistance get access to the grant and loan funds that they deserve. We will keep the lights burning here in Washington as long as it takes to secure increased grant aid for needy students, predictable tax deductions for middle-class families and better access to federally guaranteed loans for all who choose to borrow to finance their education.