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Higher Education Commission Struggles

Higher Education Commission Struggles
To Pinpoint Options for Education Reform

Panel reaches little consensus on financial aid, other issues.
By Charles Dervarics

After several months of public hearings and a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education has given few signs on whether it will adopt the bold higher education recommendations that the Bush administration wants from the panel.

At its last public meeting, in May, the commission reviewed many different proposals but agreed on few specifics, instead continuing to debate about financial aid improvements, accreditation and standardized testing — the same issues it has been talking about since the meetings started in October 2005.

The deadline for the final report has been pushed back, allowing members more time to tackle the complex task and build consensus on issues that have elicited passionately divergent opinions. For example, some panelists want large new investments of federal money for financial aid while others favor a reallocation of existing funds. Some members also continue to focus on the need for standardized testing to demonstrate whether colleges are effectively educating students while critics argue that students are tested enough, more than their international peers.

“It’s a sticky, tricky time period,” said commission chair Charles Wilson.
Wilson said the discussion at the meeting was “scattered,” but that reforming the higher education system is a difficult process. He said there was “surface consensus” that something should be done about financial aid, but some members won’t recommend more financial aid without improved accountability and less waste in the system.

“If we don’t do anything to improve the accountability, we can’t make a case for more financial aid,” Wilson said.

In the coming months, the commission will retreat behind closed doors, working in smaller groups to hash out final recommendations. The Bush administration is looking for groundbreaking ideas, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told the panel as she urged members to “be as concrete and bold as you possibly can.”

The bold options under consideration include increasing need-based aid such as Pell Grants by limiting or revoking federal tuition tax credits. While these credits have become politically popular in the last decade, they only really benefit more affluent households, said Arthur J. Rothkopf, president emeritus of Lafayette College.

But former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, a Democrat, called the idea politically naïve. “If you think you’re going to take tax credits away from middle-class families, you better re-enroll in Politics 101,” he said.

Financial aid was one part of wide-ranging discussions that also focused on accreditation, affordability and consumer information. Several members said they wanted changes to the accreditation system to make it a stronger lever to promote quality. A report prepared for the panel has called for eliminating regional accrediting bodies in favor of one national panel.

But the commission also showed little consensus on this issue.

“I don’t think we look to accreditation to provide accountability,” said Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. Others question whether the accreditation system can address the many needs of students.

Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, noted that colleges and universities still can get accredited even if they report six-year graduation rates of less than 10 percent for Black students.

The testing issue also brought more debate. “We’re unlikely to improve it if we don’t measure it,” Mendenhall said. “We can significantly increase the testing of student learning, and it would be a benefit.”

But students already pay significant sums of money for courses in which they receive grades, said Dr. Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rather than more testing, the issue may be grade inflation that undermines existing standards.

“If grades have no significance, then that’s something we need to work on,” he said.

During the meeting, members also floated proposals to better link high schools with postsecondary study. Dr. Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College in Maryland, recommended college preparatory tests in 10th or 11th grade, so students can spend their senior years better preparing for college.

Hunt also recommended a new 12th-grade standardized test to gauge whether graduating seniors are ready for college or the work force.

The commission was to finish its report by Aug. 1, but Spellings extended the deadline to mid-September. Wilson said the new date will allow more give-and-take among members and may ensure that the report receives greater attention. Also, an August release would come when many colleges, as well as Congress, are not in session.

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