College tuition assistance draws budget-cutters' eye


An article Sunday about tuition breaks given to university researchers understated the value of the benefit at the Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins annually offers the equivalent of half its tuition -- or $9,400 -- for all employees and their spouses and dependents to attend college. Last year, 627 employees took part in the program.

Also, the last name of Jean and David Sack was spelled incorrectly.

The Sun regrets the error.

For people like Jean Sacks, a research librarian at the Johns Hopkins University, a campus policy that helps to pay for her two children's college education has saved her about $36,000 -- nearly a year's salary.

But for federal officials looking to slash spending, it makes little sense to pay the tuition of children of university researchers.

In a move only recently noticed, the Clinton administration this spring signaled it no longer wanted to compensate universities for their tuition benefit, a move that would save tens of millions of dollars a year. The shift has not yet been formally approved and may be altered in the face of vigorous opposition from major universities.

"At the time we proposed this change, we questioned whether we were reimbursing a cost that provided a real benefit for the government," said Lawrence J. Haas, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. "That, in essence, is the overriding standard."

In an era when Democrats and Republicans vie to outdo one another in cutting the federal deficit, there's little constituency on Capitol Hill for contributing to the tuition of university professors and their children with public dollars.

Critics have assailed the subsidy, which is explicitly allowed under current policy, as another example of academic pork. For the year ending June 30, 1994, for example, U.S. taxpayers shouldered $1.3 million in tuition for professors, employees and their dependents at the University of Maryland College Park.

But research universities say tuition assistance is a valid form of compensation. For all professors or other staffers working on a federal research grant, the government determines what percentage of their time is spent on the project. The government then typically reimburses that percentage of their salaries and all fringes offered by the university, such as health insurance -- and, where offered, tuition aid.

$78.9 million at College Park

At College Park, U.S. agencies spent $78.9 million overall in fiscal 1994, so the tuition assistance program represented only 1.6 percent of federal spending that year, University of Maryland officials said.

At schools that perform little or no major research, such as Towson State University or Bowie State University, employees receive the same offer of free tuition within the University of Maryland System. But little of that tab is reimbursed by the government.

"It is a reasonable benefit for the universities to extend. It's the business we're in," said Cornelius J. Pings, president of the American Association of Universities, which represents 60 U.S. and Canadian research campuses.

"Most department stores give discounts on clothing. Airlines give their employees discounts on tickets. I don't find anything strange for universities to be giving a tuition discount for their employees," he said.

The challenge to the tuition subsidy is not an isolated move, although research universities still have their champions in Congress, notably Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan in particular has led an assault on abuses in research spending, homing in on questions about indirect cost. His hearings helped to transform an obscure debate overbureaucratic language on how expenses are reimbursed into a ready-for-prime-time scandal. Former Stanford University President W. Donald Kennedy was brought down in part by allegations that the university had charged the government for lavish parties and the upkeep of a snazzy yacht, for example.

And a recent Republican initiative passed by Congress would cut spending, in real dollars, by one-third on all civilian research and development by 2002.

Hopkins offers about $8,600

For its tuition-aid policy, Hopkins offers all employees the equivalent of half the cost of its tuition, or roughly $8,600 per year. That aid can be used for undergraduate tuition at any college for the employee, spouse and dependents -- a policy that resembles those at other private universities.

Hopkins officials note that they are allowed to charge to the government significantly fewer kinds of expenses than researchers at private companies who carry out contracts with the federal government. It is therefore cheaper to perform such work on campus than off it, campus officials said.

They also contend that the money does not only subsidize the tuition payments of wealthy, high-powered researchers. At Hopkins, 64 percent of employees who take part in the program earn less than $50,000 annually, according to campus figures.

As the specialist librarian at the Population Center in the Hopkins School of Public Health, Ms. Sacks earns $38,500 a year -- about what she received as a librarian in the Harford County schools, where she worked until two years ago. Her friends who are still working as public school librarians operate on nine-month contracts, and often take summer jobs for additional pay. At Hopkins, she works year-round.

Ms. Sacks' husband, David Sacks, is a Hopkins professor of public health whose salary and benefits hover around $80,000, so the couple is ineligible for federal tuition aid.

Because Dr. Sacks has also worked on federal grants in the past, the government has helped to pay for the tuitions of their children Rachel, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College of William and Mary; and Paul, a pre-medical student at Goshen College in Indiana.

A reason to stay at Hopkins

Total costs per year at each school exceed $12,000, Ms. Sacks said; Hopkins has paid about $4,500 a year for each.

The Sackses earn more than most families but are daunted by the cost of tuition for college -- and, just ahead, for advanced degrees. Both Sackses drive cars with more than 100,000 miles on them. They've taken out a mortgage to finance what's not covered by the program. And Dr. Sacks, a researcher who tests vaccines, could receive considerably more money working for a private company.

The tuition benefit is one way to keep such people as Jean and David Sacks at Hopkins. Some 695 children of 927 employees took part last year at Hopkins, at a cost of $4.5 million to the university. The federal government repaid Hopkins approximately $1.3 million for tuition -- and just under $100 million for all benefits offered by the school.

College salaries lagging

Academic administrators argue that faculty salaries are not competitive with those in private industry. A study conducted for the American Association of University Professors shows a marked decline over the past 15 years in the salaries of professors relative to the pay in other professions that require advanced degrees.

"If our salary was sufficiently high enough to pay for tuition, would that be better?" Dr. Sacks asked. "I don't know."

This year, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, studied five major U.S. research universities to see how much money was spent there by the federal government. Of those, four -- Hopkins, Stanford, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- maintained tuition-assistance programs together costing about $52 million over three years, of which roughly $17 million was charged to the government.

The fifth campus studied, the University of California, does not offer such a benefit. About 60 percent of the public colleges and universities recently asked by the Office of Naval Research offered tuition assistance; almost all private campuses did.

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