Panel urges higher-ed overhaul

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

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.

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.

Mr. Ward was the one member of the commission who declined to sign the final report. His group agreed with many of the goals, but worried about how solutions would be implemented. ACE and five other associations announced their own initiatives last week – to help low-income students prepare for college; to boost the quality of high schools and reduce the need for remediation in college; and to make information available on the true cost of attending a school and how long it takes students to graduate.

That last point speaks to the "transparency" that the report advocates.

Under the umbrella of accountability, Spellings also wants Congress, states, and institutions to collaborate on a national system of college-student data that would measure how much they learn. About 40 states have such systems, she says, but education consumers should be able to compare data across state lines.

The proposal has raised privacy concerns among some critics. Spellings offered assurances that any such database would not be tied to students' personal information and would protect privacy.

The commission's discussions also sparked concerns earlier this year that it might push for a college-level standardized test akin to testing in K-12 schools. Those fears have largely been quelled, says Ward, but the discussion about what types of measures are appropriate will continue.

"The big picture before us is, we need to demonstrate that the college experience is an intellectually significant one and that we add value," says Constantine Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

One model suggested in the report is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which evaluates students' analytic reasoning, written communication, and critical thinking – as freshmen and again as seniors. Students who have tried the test say it's too long, says Debra Stuart, vice chancellor for administration with the state university system in Oklahoma, one of five states that piloted the CLA.

"We learned that it's very important that whatever measures we use have some consequences or credentials for the students, or else we can't motivate them to take it or to take it seriously," Ms. Stuart says. The GRE, which gives students an opportunity for graduate school, might work for these purposes, she adds.

It would be helpful to trace how well students do when they leave the state, but states could share information without a federal database, Stuart says.

Spellings plans to bring together accreditation groups, university representatives, and others in the coming months to discuss how best to move forward on these complex subjects.

Commission Chairman Charles Miller says he's eager to see how the report reverberates. "Whether [colleges and universities] respond and deal with the changes that are necessary, that's still an open question," he says. "Change is hard."

Recommendations for improving higher ed

The final report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education offers wide-ranging findings. Not all commissioners agreed on the specifics for how to achieve the goals, and the national debate is likely to continue for years. Here's a summary of recommendations, provided by the Department of Education:

1. Student academic preparation should be improved and financial aid made available so that more students are able to access and afford a quality higher education.

2. The entire student financial aid system should be simplified, restructured, and provided with incentives to better manage costs and measure performance.

3. A "robust culture of accountability and transparency" should be cultivated throughout the higher education system, aided by new systems of data measurement and a publicly available information database with comparable college information. There should also be a greater focus on student learning and development of a more outcome-focused accreditation system.

4. Colleges and universities should embrace continuous innovation and quality improvement.

5. Federal investments should be targeted to areas critical to America's global competitiveness, such as math, science, and foreign languages.

6. A strategy for lifelong learning should be developed to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of a college education to every American's future.

The full report is online at:

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