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Higher ed. bill sparks debate at University

While expressing concern about the rising cost of a Duke education, administrators expressed general opposition to a federal bill that would restrict student aid to colleges that raised tuition levels too high.

A range of reactions to the legislation exists among senior administrators, however, from Provost Peter Lange's argument that higher education remains a good deal for many families to Executive Vice President Tallman Trask's threat that he would go to Washington to testify in favor of the bill.

President Nan Keohane cautioned in her Oct. 16 State of the University address to the faculty that the University must guard carefully against rising costs. "I worry that... there seems to be no real limit to our ability to charge prices that rise steadily above inflation," she said. "Financial aid will not save us forever from the consequences of rising costs."

Despite this dire warning, others were of the opinion that tuition was still a relative bargain.

"The President is right to draw attention to the political need, as well as the economic need, to watch costs," Lange said. "On the other hand, higher education at a place like Duke is still a highly successful investment for parents and their children and still does a very good job."

John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said he thinks the question of high tuition is legitimate but that the University has been "pretty much below the curve" on tuition increases for the past couple of years.

Both Lange and Burness said the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., calls for price controls. "It's really bad public policy," Burness said.

The minority view on the bill was expressed by Trask, who said that he was almost alone among his peers in supporting Congress's questioning of the spiraling cost of higher education.

"I threatened to go testify in favor of the bill," he said. "All my friends were mad at me."

Trask said only the opponents of the bill have said that it would create price controls. McKeon, for one, has vehemently argued that price controls would not result because the bill would not dictate a price that colleges would have to charge students. Instead, colleges that increase their cost of attendance by twice the rate of inflation or more for a three-year period would be required to explain the tuition increase and provide the U.S. Education Department with a plan outlining steps to slow the rate of increase. After a series of intermediate steps, if a college is still out of compliance, the U.S. Education Department could restrict it from participating in some federal aid programs.

Despite differences of opinion, if there is one area in which most administrators are in agreement, it is that Washington's contribution to the issue has been unimpressive so far.

Lange said the University does not need a "federal edict," and even Trask said he objected to some aspects of the bill.

In general, the consensus was that with little Democratic support and reservations from some Republicans, the bill was unlikely to pass.

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