Higher Ed Commission Revises Findings

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education on Thursday approved the final draft report of recommendations for improving U.S. higher education to ensure that graduates remain competitive in an ever-changing global economy.

           

Though the report garnered near-unanimous approval, some commission members said they had ongoing concerns about the report as well as the state of U.S. higher education.

“Our findings indicate that these days, we are principally privileging the privileged –  [those] who, by virtue of circumstances of birth and civic status, are able to have expectations that match their aspirations,” said Dr. Arturo Madrid, a commission member and Trinity University humanities professor. “All of us here had most of those conditions. We need to remind ourselves that a very large percentage of our potential students do not.”

The new draft calls for increasing higher ed access and performance via more aid to low-income students and enhancing student preparation; the restructuring of the financial aid system to improve the measurement and management of costs; and the creation of a “consumer-friendly” higher ed database to track student performance.

The panel also recommended revamping higher ed curricula to encourage innovation and emphasize math and the sciences; develop a national strategy to promote lifelong learning; and increase federal investment in “areas critical to our nation’s global competitiveness” such as engineering and medicine.

Commission member Dr. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said this new draft is still too pessimistic and critical of U.S. higher ed and does not do enough to highlight and promote higher ed “best practices.” He is the only commission member who says he will not sign the report.

“I guess I may be providing rain on this unanimous reaction to the report. I do share with everybody a very positive reaction to the report, but in its entirety, I feel reluctant to sign it,” Ward said. “Where I think I have apprehension is that I wish we could have built our arguments more on the strength of higher education than on the idea that there may be a crisis or even an emerging crisis.”

Commission member Dr. Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., said she backs the report as it addresses pressing concerns she has as a community college president working to increase access to higher ed for disadvantaged students.

“When I came on the commission I came with some goals, one of those goals was to try to ensure that this report had a powerful statement about access, which I believe is the most crucial issue for the future of our country. And I’m very pleased to say that it does that,” Nunley said.

“By access, I don’t mean just getting students in the door,” she added. “I mean broadening access to historically underrepresented populations and progressing them through and out the door which I think we still have some very significant challenges to face in higher education.”

The latest report is very different in tone than the first draft, issued in June, which caused widespread uproar, specifically over a recommendation to create the national database to track U.S. students’ performance over time to gauge real-world payoffs of an American education. Raising privacy concerns, critics blasted the proposal saying such a database could amount to domestic spying. Critics also objected to statements in the previous draft blasting American higher ed for being ineffectual and unaccountable.

In response, the commission toned down some of its rhetoric in the new draft recommendations approved yesterday and took pains to note that the national database it calls for should be “privacy-protected” and not allow personal information like social security numbers and names to be tracked along with performance data.

Commission staff will polish up the report and commissioners will sign it. The commission’s final report to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is due in next month.

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