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November 06, 2013 10:00 AM Are We Finally Going to Start Paying Attention to Affordability?

By Daniel Luzer

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Higher education discussions are generally dominated by “problems” the policy should “solve.” For years the problem was access, not enough Americans were going to college. Then we started to worry about completion. A whole lot of people were going to college, sure, but a whole lot of them seemed to be dropping out.

And now, maybe, it’s time to worry about how much college really costs. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in preparation for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the event started out focusing on “innovation” in colleges. But then something happened:

Midway through the hearing, the focus shifted to the topic of college affordability and student-loan debt. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, expressed concern that the committee was ignoring the issue of rising costs, and said it was important to examine “how this innovation is going to directly lead to college costing less for students.”

It’s not just senators who are worried.

That concern also echoed in the House this week. The College Affordability Act, introduced by Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Pennsylvania Democrat, would rework the American Opportunity Tax Credit to make it easier for students and families to maximize their benefit from the credit to pay for college.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate committee, concluded the hearing by stressing that one important goal of campus innovation should be “to help low-income, high-performing students.”

This is a very important point. The only reason for a college to “innovate” is so that it gets cheaper for students to attend. If the institution pursues innovation techniques just in order to cut its own costs, and college is just as expensive for students, nothing is better.

From a public policy perspective, innovation, through “accelerated degree completion” or “competency-based learning” or whatever, is only an improvement if that means students pay less for college.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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