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Panel urges higher-ed overhaul

Sky-high tuition and lack of accountability are targets of a federal commission.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2006

When today's babies grow up and head to college around 2025, will they look back at 2006 as a radical turning point in American higher education? That's the hope of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a prestigious 19-member panel that presented its findings this month after a year of hearings and deliberations. On Tuesday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who had appointed the group, outlined what she would do to address the keynotes of affordability and accountability in higher education.

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The report urges the most comprehensive reform in decades. It calls for reining in tuition, improving access and graduation rates, and doing more to demonstrate the value of higher education. The issues aren't new, but Ms. Spellings, herself the mother of a college student, is asking Congress, state governments, and both public and private universities to work together to start making changes now.

The commission acknowledges that many aspects of US higher ed are the envy of the world, but warned that its shortcomings could hobble competitiveness. Only 31 percent of American college graduates are rated "proficient" at understanding a newspaper article, and the US is 12th among industrialized nations in granting college degrees. "The sector's past attainments have led our nation to unwarranted complacency about its future," the report says.

Historically, major changes have been accompanied by an infusion of new students into colleges – the GI Bill of 1944, for instance, aimed at returning soldiers – but "this is the first time higher education has been asked to [change] without a promise of enormous growth," says William Doyle, assistant professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Given the public's consternation over tuition spikes, there's widespread agreement on the need for talk. But agreement breaks down when it comes to defining and solving the problems. Some critics are suspicious that the drumbeat for "accountability" – from the administration that created the testing regimen of No Child Left Behind – will lead to government intrusion and a narrowing of higher education to what can be quantified and compared.

The financial-aid system is one of the biggest targets for change. Holding up a federal financial-aid application during her remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, Spellings noted that it's longer than most people's tax forms. She said she'd work to simplify the process and cut in half the time it takes to apply.

Spellings also endorsed the idea that more need-based aid should be available, but stopped short of promising to act on a recommendation to increase the federal Pell Grant program for low-income students to cover 70 percent of tuition at an average four-year state school. (In 2004-05, average Pell Grants covered 48 percent.)

"There's good evidence that highly qualified low-income students don't attend at the same rate as middle- and upper-income students.... They're simply being priced out," says Professor Doyle. High-income students who earn the lowest scores on standardized tests attend college at the same rate as low-income students who earn top scores, the report says.

Kelly Yates, a senior at Northeastern University in Boston, agrees that the cost and complications hold many people back. "A lot of times they'll tell you at the beginning that you're all set with financial aid, but then two weeks later you'll get a bill ... and you have to spend a couple hours debating," she says. Ms. Yates usually works full time to pay her way, but still estimates that she'll be $60,000 in debt when she graduates. "I know some people on the dean's list every semester who are thinking about leaving because they can't afford it anymore, and I think that's sad."

Shifting the balance from merit aid to need-based aid won't be easy, however. "Virtually all institutions award merit aid ... [and] no single institution is going to be in a position to address that issue without cutting itself out of a large percentage of the market," says University of Denver Chancellor Robert Coombe.

Increases in grants are important, but they have to go hand in hand with keeping costs down, or "all the new money just gets absorbed by the higher prices.... States and colleges both have to work on [constraining tuition]," says Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The report suggests caps to keep tuition growth from exceeding the growth in median family income over a five-year period. But that fails to take into account the effect of decreased state funding for colleges, as well as all the factors that influence the cost of providing education, says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), which coordinates higher education associations.