Officals express concerns about college affordability legislation

Congress said “yes,” and the president did too.

Legislators hope the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008 – passed in July – will make higher education more financially feasible for all, but university officials expressed reservations about certain aspects of the law.

“Overall, we’re pleased. This legislation has been a long time coming,” said Michael Scott, director of scholarships and financial aid. “But you’re never going to please everyone.”

The new legislation will require colleges and universities to report more information about their prices and costs. Those schools with the highest percentage tuition increases will be placed on a “watch list” and will be expected to explain these increases to the U.S. Department of Education.

Other measures include simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, requiring institutions to report the names of students who illegally download copyrighted property and increasing maximum limits on federal grant and loan programs. For example, under this new legislation, Pell grants for low-income students will now be available year round.

Scott said the proposed “watch lists” generate concern, noting that the net tuition income of public and private nonprofit colleges and universities most of the time is less than their expenses.

According to 2007 College Board estimates, the average tuition increase at private universities for the 2007-2008 academic year was 6.3 percent. TCU’s tuition increase for the 2007-2008 school year was 8 percent.

Scott said the inclusion of TCU in such a list may convey a negative impression to prospective students. He said the list fails to explain how much TCU, and schools with similarly large endowments, give away every year.

“Over $60 million went back into financial aid this year,” Scott said.

Don Mills, vice chancellor for student affairs, said even though the new legislation may benefit students in the short run, it could make improvements at college campuses difficult by putting pressure on schools to cut tuition costs.

“The challenge to schools is that institutions may have no way to fund true significant increases in quality, such as lowering the faculty/student ratio, enhancing institutional financial aid programs, developing internship programs, and the like,” Mills said.

The original document will likely not stand as is because the Department of Education, charged with interpreting and enforcing the new act, has to clarify ambiguous ideas and unclear wording in the text, Scott said. He said it may be 2010 before some of the laws even take effect.

Mills said the Department of Education will conduct public hearings this fall to get feedback before establishing rules, and one of those hearings will take place at TCU on Sept. 19.

Chancellor Victor Boschini said he cannot yet be sure about the impact the law will have on TCU students.

“I have high hopes,” Boschini said. “Generally I am in favor of anything that makes college more affordable.”

Jim Wright, former Texas congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said the law was a step in the right direction because by making college more affordable, people could access better jobs, propelling the economy.