In our opinion: Promising new efforts may help to make college affordable

Published: Sunday, March 10 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Feb. 15, 2013, Danny M. Leipziger, center, teaches a macro economics class at George Washington University in Washington.

Associated Press

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There is growing consensus that when it comes to addressing the serious challenges facing higher education in America, business as usual just won't cut it, and an intervention of new policy is plainly due. From that recognition, there are promising new efforts afoot that deserve to be explored.

Among them are initiatives to lower tuition, increase graduation rates, reduce the time students spend on campus and to better prepare them for direct entrance into the workforce. There is also a bipartisan effort on the federal level to help prospective students and their parents make more intelligent decisions when it comes to selecting an institution.

The dynamics of such reform are spelled out in a recent report by the State Higher Education Officers Association, which is sounding an alarm over the widening gap between costs borne by students, and those picked up through state government appropriations.

According to the association, the share of costs supported by tuition has doubled since 1987, while spending by state governments has declined by 23 percent during the same period. Many infer that this will lead to a gradual devaluation of a college degree, as measured against its escalating costs.

Already, economists believe rising costs are forcing lower-income students to forego a four-year college education, which is diminishing the quality of the nation's workforce and threatening to hurt our competitiveness in a global economy.

The trend isn't likely to be reversed if left to the universities themselves, which tend to prioritize recruiting students over getting them out the door in a reasonable time period. Since 1989, the rate of graduation within five years of matriculation is down 10 percent among America's public institutions. But during the same period, overall enrollment is up roughly 24 percent.

The Obama administration is floating the notion that federal funding may be leveraged to reverse the trend. For instance, Washington might shift funds from institutions with poor track records of keeping tuition down, while increasing grants to institutions that serve less affluent students. With $170 billion in annual appropriations, the feds wield a stick big enough to get the attention of any state's higher education administration.

A more intriguing proposal in the Senate with bipartisan sponsorship would bring a measure of free-market influence into the picture by giving students and their parents greater access to information when deciding on a college. For example, universities would be required to post data on what kind of jobs at what rates of pay are greeting their graduates. Tuition checks are easier to write if there is confidence they will lead to better paying jobs, and schools with better cost-benefit ratios would presumably enjoy a recruiting edge over other institutions.

That kind of information may arrive soon on a website managed by the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center. Data available there now shows, among other things, the average tuition costs and graduation rates among public universities.

Using the data, families searching for a public school in Utah would find, for example, that the University of Utah posts the highest average rate of graduation within a six-year period at 56 percent. The lowest — 25 percent — is posted by Utah Valley University. There are plans to augment that data with specific information on the kinds job opportunities students at individual institutions find upon graduation.

Empowering the education consumer, of course, is only part of a solution. The efficacy of state and federal policies regarding the funding of higher education is a discussion that deserves the highest level of public attention, with an eye toward meaningful change.

The alternative is a languishing status quo that is pricing too much of our future workforce out of an opportunity to acquire marketable skills within a reasonable period of time.

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