Higher Education Commission Near Unanimous On Sweeping Policy Recommendations

By Alyson Klein — August 10, 2006 7 min read
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A U.S. Department of Education panel tasked with making long-range recommendations for revamping the nation’s higher education system voted almost unanimously Aug. 10 to approve a long-awaited draft report that calls for greater alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions, and an overhaul of the federal college financial-aid system.

The 19 members of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, established last September by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, reached a near-consensus on the report after almost a year of heated debate and eight meetings, including hearings on topics ranging from college access to workforce readiness.

Eighteen members of the commission, which includes representatives from universities, business leaders, and policymakers, voted to support the report at a meeting in Washington. 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 he found much to like in the recommendations, but expressed concern about how they might be implemented. He said he would be in a stronger position to criticize aspects of the report in the future if he withheld his signature.

The report calls for an increased emphasis on distributing financial aid based on student need, including a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program. It urges colleges to invest in mathematics and science education, and to use new technologies and teaching methods to meet the needs of a changing student population, which includes more mid-career students and adult learners.

In the draft proposal, panel members also encourage colleges and universities to use value-added assessments to measure students’ skills at the beginning and end of their college careers. Colleges and universities should make the results of those tests public, according to the report.

“We’ve reached a strong consensus,” said the commission’s chairman, Charles Miller, a private investor and former chairman of the board of regents of the University of Texas system. He said the commission’s work had been “sometimes contentious, but from a diverse group of people, that’s the way it ought to be.”

Mr. Miller said the group would formally present the final version of its report to Ms. Spellings once it is printed, possibly in mid-September. He said there may be minor changes to the final version, including some copy-editing.

Secretary Spellings released a statement Aug. 10 commending the commission for its work. She said she would “review the findings, determine appropriate actions, and continue this national dialogue on how to become more responsive to the needs of students, parents, educators, and the business community.”

Next Steps

Despite the near-unanimous vote, several commission members expressed some misgivings. Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University in Athens, lamented that the report did not address “grade inflation,” “hedonistic” campus culture, or the “deplorable lack of intellectual diversity” among faculty members on some campuses.

Charles M. Vest, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, said the report should have done more to stress the need for more investment—federal and otherwise—in colleges and universities.

In explaining his decision not to support the draft, Mr. Ward said 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 exams could be interpreted to mean that federal or state governments should mandate such tests—a policy he would oppose.

Mr. Ward also suggested that the report does not do enough to recognize the differences among various higher education institutions. Instead, he said, it calls for a “one size fits all” approach to overhauling postsecondary schools. Nor does it explain where the extra money needed for many of the proposed changes would come from, he said.

Still, in an interview, 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.”

Commission members also had varying ideas about what the panel’s next steps should be.

James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina, suggested that commission members and Ms. Spellings should be prepared to discuss the recommendations with members of Congress, state legislatures, and others. Mr. Vest said commission members should instead concentrate first on pressing policymakers to deal with the access issue by advocating an overhaul of financial-aid systems to help needier students afford college.

But Chairman Miller suggested the report would be only the beginning of a public debate on the future of higher education. He said the business community and academia may need to take the lead in implementing some of the recommendations, and that policymakers could follow when a broader public consensus emerges.

But widespread agreement could take some time.

The report has already come under fire from some college associations. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based organization representing 1,000 colleges and universities, released a statement Aug. 10 that largely lambasted the report, particularly the movement 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 report largely focuses on higher education, it encourages more cooperation with K-12 schools to ensure that students are prepared for college. The report urges colleges and universities to “assume responsibility for working with the K-12 system” to make sure that teachers are properly trained and curricula are aligned. 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. That recommendation may already be on its way to implementation, as NAEP’s governing board voted to rework the math tests for seniors to better measure skills, such as mathematical reasoning, that students will need to be successful in college.

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.” President Bush made a similar proposal in 2004 that would have made state-by-state reporting of the 12th grade NAEP mandatory, but it has not been approved in Congress.

The report also proposes that the Department of Education administer the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, or NAAL, every five years instead of every 10, and expand the sample size to provide state-by-state data instead of national results only. The American Association of Colleges and Universities’ statement contended that such a recommendation would “seem to propose NAAL as the college equivalent of the NAEP.”

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 recommends that the federal government 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.

Still, the report cautions that any boost in Pell Grant funding should be coupled with an effort by colleges and universities to rein in costs to students and their families. The proposal suggests that tuition increases not exceed the growth in median family income, while adding that the panel opposes price controls.

The report also calls for making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the main federal aid application, or FAFSA, much simpler. And it calls on federal financial-aid administrators to provide students with an estimate of how much money they will be eligible to receive for college as early as the 8th grade.


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