Seeking to corral the rising costs of higher education, an influential House Republican on Wednesday proposed capping tuition and fee increases at twice the rate of inflation.
Colleges and universities that break the limit would be warned by the federal government and, after a one-year grace period, would face sanctions including a possible cutoff of federal aid.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who chairs a House panel that oversees higher education, drew up the plan.
McKeon, a quiet conservative who is ordinarily a critic of new government regulations, said Congress should take a radical step to address a problem that existing federal aid programs have failed to solve.
"We've talked and we've talked and we've talked, and college costs keep going up," he said in a brief interview.
In the last decade, average tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities jumped about 75% -- to $18,273 a year for private institutions and $4,081 a year for public institutions in the 2002-03 school year -- according to the College Board. Even when adjusted for inflation, the College Board found, the increases were still about 38%.
Democrats were skeptical about the proposal, senior Republicans withheld judgment and some higher education groups quickly mobilized against it.
McKeon said he plans to formally introduce the College Affordability in Higher Education Act within the next two weeks. As chairman of the House subcommittee on 21st century competitiveness, he is positioned to push the bill in congressional debates.
Critics, led by university and college trade groups, denounced the proposal, describing it as an attempt to impose price controls.
"It is a very heavy-handed federal effort to deal with the problem," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 public and private colleges and universities.
"We think it would be a very bad step to take an industry that is widely regarded as being the best in the world and subject it to federal price controls," Hartle said.
McKeon's idea is to establish an "affordability index" to measure the rate of increase of tuition and other fees at public and private universities.
Institutions that raised their costs by more than twice the rate of inflation would be required to explain the increases to the U.S. Department of Education and submit a plan to reduce them in the future.
Institutions that breach the limit two consecutive years would face potential penalties. The plan, described in a news release, contained few details.
McKeon's spokeswoman, Deana Bass, said the penalties would include possible loss of eligibility for federal student financial aid. She said the sanctions would not target federal research grants.
Bass said that many institutions would have nothing to fear.
"There are tons of colleges and states that are doing a good job, even in this economic climate, keeping their tuition at reasonable rates," she said. "Those institutions and those states should be reasonable models."
Hartle said that many factors increase college costs.
Among them, Hartle said, are the drive to keep up with the latest advances in science and technology, cuts in state assistance to public universities and existing regulation by the federal government.
He said higher education should be considered as a free market that is working well.
"States and private institutions are setting tuition," Hartle said. "Consumers have complete choice. They can go anywhere they want. Price controls very quickly [would] lead to a reduction in supply and diminution in quality."
Daniel Weiss, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller of Martinez, the top Democrat on the education committee, said that most lawmakers are concerned about rising tuition.
But he said hearings should be held to examine the issue. Democrats, Weiss said, would question whether Republican economic policies are forcing cash-strapped states to raise tuition at public universities.