The political fervor awakened in state legislatures this year by rising college tuition is catching on in Congress, where more than a dozen proposals have been introduced to provide families an incentive to save for higher education.
The latest measure, offered yesterday by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), would allow families to use U.S. Savings Bonds to pay for college. As an incentive, the program would exempt the earnings from federal income tax.
A range of other proposals is already before the House and Senate: education trust funds, tax-free accounts modeled after individual retirement accounts and savings bonds similar to the U.S. Savings Bond program.
The concept has swept state legislatures, with tuition-payment plans under consideration in nearly 40 states. Six states have enacted tuition-guarantee plans, allowing parents to put down a lump sum and be guaranteed their child's full tuition would be paid in the future.
The political appeal of tuition-payment plans reflects growing concern that college costs, which are climbing faster than inflation, could make higher education inaccessible to millions of Americans. If enacted, both the federal and state programs could revolutionize the way families finance their children's college expenses.
"We cannot allow rising costs to put a college degree out of reach," Kennedy said yesterday, citing projections showing tuition and fees for four years at a selective private college reaching $140,600 by 2005. "These figures are astronomical and way out of the ability of most working, middle-income families."
The proposals, however, are not without problems. Given the concern over the federal deficit, the cost of the programs presents perhaps the largest obstacle. Kennedy estimated his proposal would cost $845 million after 15 years if a million families invest $500 a year. But at the same time, he said, the families would be investing in savings bonds and eventually spending $7 billion on education.
There is also skepticism about further tinkering with federal tax incentives, given last year's tax overhaul. Virtually all the programs, state and federal, offer tax incentives to save for college.
Nevertheless, elected officials -- prompted by rising tuition costs -- are scrambling to come out with versions of the plan. The College Board reported this summer that college tuition and fees will outstrip the rate of inflation for the seventh straight year, rising an average of 6 percent at four-year public colleges. The consumer price index rose 3.7 percent in the last year.
The tuition savings programs have gained support from both Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Bush has proposed an education savings-bond program as part of his presidential campaign. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) has introduced four tuition-payment bills, one of which resembles an individual retirement account, and three variations of education savings bond programs.
"Most federal financial aid is designed to provide assistance to economically disadvantaged students," said Christina Bolton, Dole's administrative assistant. "At this time, given the high cost of financing higher education, some help needs to be given to middle-income students as well."
Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the subcommittee on postsecondary education, is also offering legislation to establish education savings bonds and individual education trusts. The trust proposal has drawn 70 cosponsors.
At the state level, Illinois and North Carolina have enacted savings-bond programs. Maryland and Virginia have been studying a variety of options. And tuition-guarantee programs have been adopted by Michigan, Wyoming, Tennessee, Maine, Indiana and Florida, according to the Education Commission of the States.
But members of Congress argue that the federal programs have the advantage of portability: While state plans restrict students to colleges within the state, the federal programs would allow savings to be spent at any U.S. college.