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Draft Federal Report Says Higher Education Is ‘Unduly Expensive’

By Alyson Klein — July 11, 2006 3 min read
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A federal panel studying ways to improve higher education is struggling to reach a consensus on its recommendations for how best to hold down college costs and prepare students for an increasingly competitive economy.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established last year with a broad mandate to re-examine postsecondary education, has only a few months to hammer out its final report, which it plans to issue by September.

Some commission members were put off by a draft of the report, released June 26, because of what they considered its negative tone. The staff-written draft admonishes colleges for not doing enough to hold down tuition costs or explore innovative teaching methods, saying that the institutions have become “increasingly risk-averse, frequently self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”

David Ward, a commission member and the president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based organization of 1,800 college and universities, said in a letter to the college presidents in his organization that he was “unhappy with the tone and the hostile, almost confrontational, way it approaches higher education.”

The commission’s chairman, Charles Miller, a private investor and a former chairman of the board of regents of the University of Texas system, said in a June 29 interview that the panel would likely hold at least one or two more public meetings to work through areas of considerable disagreement, including its recommendations on how to deal with transferring credits, cut college costs, and ensure students graduate prepared for the workforce.

Charles Miller

The draft recommends bolstering the role of for-profit colleges and community colleges that serve as “competitors” to four-year institutions. It calls for encouraging colleges to test their students at the end of their college careers to measure learning outcomes.

The draft also calls for revamping the entire federal financial-aid system, partly by consolidating programs and overhauling the complicated Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which serves as the main federal student-aid application.

Mr. Miller said that while no consensus on those proposals was reached at a June 28 closed-door meeting of the commission, panel members “made some progress.”

Mr. Miller said the draft report’s tone was not intended to “somehow punish higher ed” but to demonstrate the urgency of problems, such as rising college costs. He added that communicating that “in softer terms” might not be the right approach, and that academia could handle the criticism.

Secretary Spellings has not read the draft report, said Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. She added that the secretary had expected the commission to “ignite a robust, healthy debate” and had “specifically sought commissioners with wide-ranging backgrounds and opinions to launch this national dialogue.”

School-College Alignment

On matters directly related to precollegiate education, the draft report calls for greater cooperation between K-12 school systems and higher education. It suggests that students are poorly prepared for college partly because high school courses “often lack rigor.”

The draft report recommends that states align their high school graduation standards with the demands of college work, and it encourages colleges to help schools improve the preparation of students for higher education, particularly among underserved populations.

One commission member, Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group for disadvantaged students, said she supported those proposals. But she noted that the so-called P-16 movement, which seeks greater alignment within education from the preschool level through college, has sufficient momentum even without the federal panel’s blessing.

“That train is moving pretty fast right now,” Ms. Haycock said. (“States Push to Align Policies From Pre-K to Postsecondary,” June 21, 2006.)

The report also briefly touches on K-12 teacher preparation, saying in a one-line recommendation that colleges of teacher education should be overhauled. Ms. Haycock called that an “embarrassingly pathetic recommendation.”

“We had not one conversation about teacher prep,” she said of the commission’s five public meetings since last year. “It’s a throwaway recommendation.”

Mr. Miller acknowledged that the commission had not spent much time discussing teacher education. But, he said, “higher education needs to take responsibility [for student learning] and not keep telling us it’s the K-12 problem. [Teacher preparation] is part of their responsibility.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Draft Federal Report Says Higher Education Is ‘Unduly Expensive’

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