President Obama’s discussion of college costs is timely but needs to be expanded

Record high unemployment during the Obama administration leading to weak state economies has caused states to cut funding to higher education.  Over the last year, 40 states have decreased higher education spending, including my home state of North Carolina. To cover the gap, colleges and universities are raising tuition and fees but doing little to cut costs. When American families find their costs are going up, they find ways to trim spending in some areas. Unfortunately, only a few colleges and universities have been willing to cut costs. 

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At my subcommittee’s hearing on college costs in November, we heard many suggestions for how colleges and universities could cut costs.  We heard from colleges who have cut their operating budgets, offered expedited degree programs and encouraged dual enrollment by high school students.  The average university is now spending 60-70 percent of its budget on employee salaries and benefits. Increasing tuition and fees can cover the gap for only so long, impending large increases in health insurance costs will make the situation worse.  Students and their families are struggling to make ends meet and higher education institutions must find ways to cut costs.

While I appreciate that the president has acknowledged the problem of soaring tuition costs, I remain concerned that his proposed solutions will result in more federal spending and overreach into our nation’s higher education system. In the past, federal intervention in colleges has meant increased regulatory burdens for institutions and in turn, greater compliance costs trickle down to increased costs for students and their families. The subcommittee’s hearing examined not only the solutions some institutions are adopting to bring down costs, but also discussed the consequences of unnecessary regulations.

In October 2010, the Obama administration released a package of regulations that purportedly sought to improve the integrity of financial aid programs. However, the state authorization regulation is duplicative of existing state processes and is a solution in search of a problem. In addition, this regulation is expensive for both states and institutions. 

Another troublesome regulation is the new federal definition of a credit hour. This definition has traditionally been left to accrediting agencies and institutions of higher education.  This regulation was not in response to any specific issue within the industry but rather an arbitrary decision by a federal agency to increase its control and increase the burden for colleges and universities.  Onerous regulations come with a price and that price is paid by students and taxpayers.
 
To help streamline institutional spending and reduce the burden of federal regulations on institutions of higher education, I authored H.R. 2117, the Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act which seeks to repeal the state authorization regulation and the federal definition of a credit hour. This legislation passed the House Education and Workforce Committee with bipartisan support; my colleagues and I look forward to a vote on the House floor this session.

Before we give more control of our lives and institutions to the federal government, institutions should share best practices for cutting costs, unnecessary regulations should be scraped and we should increase transparency so parents and students can compare institutions.  I look forward to taking President Obama up on his promise to “work with anyone in this chamber” to improve the State of our Union and comprehensively address the challenges facing college students and their families. 

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx is a Republican Representative from North Carolina.  She serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and serves as the chairwoman on the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.