WASHINGTON – Everyone agrees that getting a college degree,even at a state university,has become too expensive for many,but not everyone agrees on how to solve the problem.
At a forum Tuesday sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly,experts proposed giving more federal aid to students in their first years of college,creating programs to allow some students to graduate debt-free and making sure students can transfer from community colleges to state universities without losing credit hours.
Rep. Buck McKeon,R-Calif.,said the situation is a “national crisis.”
A report by the College Board in October 2003 said the total cost of attending a public four-year school rose 10 percent over the previous year.
Almost half of the nation's high school students who are prepared academically can't afford to attend a four-year institution,and more than 20 percent can't even afford community college,said McKeon,who chairs the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness. Higher education is one of the subcommittee's focuses.
The problem is complex,with universities competing to get better students,professors and research grants as funding from state governments shrinks,the panelists said.
Unlike other free-enterprise markets,“There simply is no demand for low-quality,low-cost education,” said C.D. Mote Jr.,president of the University of Maryland. “It just isn't there.”
Public colleges do vary in quality and cost,giving students different options,said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok. He pointed out that U.S. News and World Report ranks schools according to both their value and quality.
McKeon said more students should consider community colleges. He said students can spend a year or two taking core requirements and deciding a course of study,then use the money they've saved to finish their degrees at a four-year institution.
“We need to be more discriminating buyers. A lot of people think they need to go to Harvard or they have to go Cal-Tech,” he said. At a community college,“you can get a good start,a good foundation. In fact,a lot of times you can fit in a lot better.”
One roadblock,McKeon said,is that students often waste time and money when community college credits don't count toward a degree at a four-year school.
McKeon said when Congress re-authorizes the Higher Education Act next year,it may mandate that four-year colleges have clear policies about what community college courses will count toward degrees.
“When [students] start,they will know when they will finish,and not half way through they find the game has changed,” he said.
McKeon also said lawmakers will require that all public colleges and universities submit information for an Education Department database breaking down school costs and other information. The Web site will allow parents to compare “apples to apples,” so they can be better consumers. He said the government will not attempt assess quality or rank schools.
Lawmakers also hope to give students more access to educational grants and loans in their first two years of school. That's when dropout rates are higher,he said.
At Maryland,where the average in-state student spends more than $16,000 a year,Mote said the university has created a program for poor students. They work eight to 10 hours a week and graduate debt-free,thanks to federal,state and university funding.
“We need to think of a number of creative methods that will allow students from the lower economic levels to have a really top-class education at university,at a level they can afford,” he said.