Department Seeks Input on Higher Ed. Panel’s Suggestions for Change

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The Department of Education plans to seek public feedback on a sweeping report approved this month by a commission charged with making long-range recommendations for changes in the nation’s higher education system.

The department announced Aug. 18 that it would hold hearings around the country this fall to explore higher education policy, including suggestions put forth by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established last year.

While the discussions may touch on other proposals, they are likely to be informed by the commission’s draft report, approved nearly unanimously at a meeting in Washington on Aug. 10.

The report calls for greater alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions, and an overhaul of the federal college financial-aid system, among other major changes.

Higher Education Recommendations

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has approved a draft final report recommending that:

Tuition Assistance: The federal government significantly increase the current $4,050 Pell Grant so that it covers 70 percent of the average tuition cost at an in-state, four-year public university.

Financial Aid: Colleges, states, and the federal government shift more resources toward need-based financial aid.

Cost Database: The federal government create a searchable database that would allow students, parents, and policymakers to compare information on college costs, admissions criteria, and possibly student learning outcomes at different institutions.

Testing: Colleges and universities be encouraged to offer tests to measure student learning and make the results available to the public.

Standards: States align high school graduation standards more closely with college admissions requirements.

The department also may create as many as three committees that would include students, financial-aid administrators, state higher education officers, and business leaders to make suggestions on how to change higher education policy through the federal rulemaking process.

While some of the proposals in the higher education commission’s report, including a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, would have to be approved by Congress, others could be implemented administratively, a department official said.

Lone Dissent

The commission’s report calls for an increased emphasis on distributing financial aid based on student need and urges colleges to invest in mathematics and science education. It also encourages colleges to use new methods to meet the needs of a changing student population, which includes more mid-career students and older adult learners.

The panel also urges colleges and universities to use value-added assessments to measure students’ skills at the beginning and end of their college careers, and to make the results of those tests public.

Eighteen members of the commission, which includes college officials, business leaders, and state policymakers, voted to support those recommendations. The lone dissenting vote came from David Ward, the president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based umbrella organization representing 1,800 postsecondary schools.

Mr. Ward said in an interview that he agreed with the general idea of expanding accountability in higher education.

But, he said, the “devil is in the details” with many of the recommendations. For example, he worries the language dealing with standardized tests could be interpreted to mean that federal or state governments should mandate such tests—a policy he would oppose.

Still, Mr. Ward called the report a “shot across the bow of higher education” and said that it would be a “huge mistake for universities to dismiss the findings of the commission.”

Charles Miller, a Houston investor and the commission’s chairman, said the panel would formally present the final version of its report to Secretary Spellings once it is printed, possibly in mid-September.

The report has already come under fire from some college groups. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based organization representing 1,000 liberal arts institutions, largely lambasted the report, particularly the proposal to move toward standardized tests for colleges. It said the report “combines a hollow concern for quality in undergraduate education with a practical encouragement of a cafeteria-style college curriculum.”

Results for K-12

While the commission’s report largely focuses on higher education, it encourages more cooperation with K-12 schools to ensure that students are prepared for college. It suggests that states revamp high school graduation standards to more closely mirror college-entrance requirements and employer needs.

The report also recommends that the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress be revamped to better measure college and workforce readiness. In addition, the report endorses changing the way the 12th grade NAEP is administered to enable state-by-state comparisons, instead of the current national sample alone, which the commission said is “of little value.”

To make college more affordable to needy students, the report suggests that the entire federal financial-aid system be “restructured” to shift more resources toward need-based financial aid and reducing student debt.

It calls for the federal government to increase the current $4,050 annual maximum Pell Grant over the next five years so that it covers 70 percent of the average cost of tuition at a four-year, in-state public university. During the 2004-05 school year, Pell Grants covered 48 percent of that cost.

Vol. 26, Issue 01, Page 37

Published in Print: August 30, 2006, as Department Seeks Input On Higher Ed. Panel’s Suggestions for Change
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