IT HOVERS like a gathering storm, its potential menacing even if its fury is never unleashed: a proposal requiring colleges to rein in rising tuition or lose federal funding.
The threat is explicit, the appeal to sticker-shock-weary families as plain as day: If states and university systems can't get their acts together, Big Brother can step in.
But federal lawmakers should keep their lightning bolts sheathed, and let states and public colleges work through their funding and tuition conundrums. California Republican Sen. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon's proposal to hold down college costs has already had the positive effect of thrusting the topic of tuition controls into local debates over college affordability - and that's the best thing it can do.
Here in Maryland, various proposals before the General Assembly would regulate tuition increases at state colleges. Some would hold increases to the inflation rate, others would cap them at 4 percent or 5 percent for several years. The proposal favored by William E. Kirwan, the University System of Maryland chancellor, would commit the state to increasing higher-education spending as it limits tuition hikes; where the money would come from is its own controversy.
Public outrage over Maryland's average 30 percent increase in public college tuition over the last two years has been a strong catalyst for change. Lawmakers now feel a need to check the regents' tuition-setting power.
But whether Maryland leaders manage higher-education expense by manipulating the state's investment in its colleges and in financial aid, by implementing greater efficiency in university system management, by setting tuition schedules or by other means, the compromises and the consequences all play out here at home, and not in Washington.
If state lawmakers and college officials can strike a balance between institutional growth and affordability that is acceptable to their constituents, the proposed federal intervention risks being redundant and creating unnecessary new bureaucracy.
Mr. McKeon's plan would require federal monitoring of colleges that raise tuition by more than two times the rate of inflation over a three-year period. Colleges that don't slow tuition's climb could lose federal aid.
But the proposed federal reins on tuition don't address the economic troubles or market pressures that drive up tuition in the first place. To prevent a repeat of the double-digit increases seen here in recent years - and the average 14.1 percent increase at public four-year colleges nationwide - will require greater prudence and prioritizing by the overseers of state and public college budgets. It's not as simple as imposing tuition caps.
We think the feds should let the states work this one out.