Last week, in this column, I wrote about the upcoming “road to reauthorization” for the Higher Education Act, certain provisions of which are already being considered in the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Boehner of Ohio.

In order for college parents to forge the “path to influence” on reauthorization that we so justly deserve as one of the key stakeholders in the process, we must be first “at the table” for key discussions. I am pleased to report that I was able to represent the views of college parents at one such discussion held earlier this week.

Billed as a “Roundtable Discussion on the College Cost Crisis,” the event was somewhere between the formality of a congressional hearing and the informality of a coffee klatch. Held in a hearing room on Capitol Hill, and hosted by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, the roundtable included six other members of Congress and, in addition to me, nine other higher education stakeholders, among them a private college president from Memphis, Tennessee, high-level representatives from the California and Maryland public university systems, a state lawmaker from Virginia, two student-group leaders and two executives from proprietary, or “for-profit,” institutions.

McKeon kicked off the discussion and declared that the roundtable would be broken into two one-hour sections: defining the “college cost” problem and suggesting solutions. In the first hour, all participants agreed that rapidly increasing college costs are indeed a problem for American families, echoing a theme in a recent report on this topic, issued last month by Messrs. McKeon and Boehner. Among many findings, the report noted: “the public is losing patience with dramatic cost increases that regularly come without justification.”

While some participants equated increasing costs to dramatic increases in student enrollment, I pointed that institutions must be experiencing some economies of scale that should help to offset increased costs.
In the solution part of the discussion, there was less unanimity, with some participants pushing for greatly increased grant aid, others urging institutions to adopt “out-of-the-box” 21st century business models, and still others reminding schools that certain “untouchable” items, such as the salaries of tenured faculty members who rarely teach, should not be put aside when considering ways to “fix” a “college affordability” problem of mounting concern to Americans.

However, the group overwhelmingly agreed that increasing transparency and making more information available to parents, students and taxpayers would be an important first step in the right direction. Scott Sudduth, a vice president with the University of California, crystallized this line of discussion. “An informed consumer is what we are lacking here,” he said.

An “informed consumer” group, of course, is exactly what we are hoping to create here at College Parents of America. On a micro level, we are committed to providing you the information resources that you need to make sure that your children are academically prepared for college, and that you are financially prepared to support them. And on a macro level, we agree with Rep. McKeon that all consumers of higher education – parents and students – need access to more easily understandable information in order to make informed decisions in the college marketplace.

At College Parents of America, we are striving to help you on both levels. We are building a storehouse of information that will help you to understand what factors go into the “expense” side at a college or university, and also how the “revenue” from your tuition only covers a small portion of the true cost of educating your student. The numbers may surprise you, at first, but as you become a “more informed college consumer,” you will learn the ropes pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, we will continue to advocate on your behalf in Washington, and where time and resources permit, in state capitals too. The college affordability issue arguably affects all 50 states, but in some places the problem is more acute than in others. Let us know what you think about “college costs” in your state, and we will get back to you with suggested ways to organize on the grassroots level. The “path to influence” doesn’t start here in our office just outside Washington. It starts with you, the united and vocal College Parents of America.

Keep the faith, spread the word and your voice will be heard. I’ll be in touch again next Friday with another column.