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American Higher Education in State of Crisis, State Legislators Say

Higher education in the United States is in a state of crisis, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education formed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The American system is no longer the best in the world, says the NCSL report “Transforming Higher Education: National Imperative — State Responsibility,” which was released Monday in Denver.

The report, which was highly influenced by Thomas Friedman’s best seller The World Is Flat, says that tuition and fees at American institutions are skyrocketing, and financial aid and loan programs are failing to keep pace. As a result, students are falling through the cracks. Nationally, for every 100 ninth graders, only 18 go on to earn degrees within six years of entering college, says the report.

“We call state legislators to action,” says Wisconsin state Rep. Rob G. Kreibich, co-chair of NCSL’s commission. “They have the power to demand that we do better, to demand that we think of higher education not as the balance wheel of budgets, but as an investment in our future.”

According to the report, states are not prepared for the dramatically changing demographic shifts in our populations. “Our fastest growing populations (Latinos, African Americans, immigrants) are the lowest participating populations in our higher education system. It is absolutely essential to the future of states and the country that these populations have access to and are successful in higher education,” it states.

Connecticut State Rep. Denise Merrill, co-chair of the commission, says states must take the initiative to reform higher education now in order to avoid unnecessary federal intrusion.

“Each state’s systems, traditions, strengths and weaknesses are unique. States need the flexibility to set their own goals,” she says. “Higher ed has always been a state responsibility and it must remain that way.”

The bipartisan commission, comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats, made several recommendations, including: identifying clear state goals for long-term priorities; studying leaks in the student pipeline; identifying the state’s demographic trends for the next 10-30 years; continuing ongoing, statewide discussions about how well the system is performing; holding institutions accountable for their performance; rethinking funding and student aid; and recommitting to access, retention and graduation.

Dr. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the division of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, says the commission’s report was an “unusually candid and important assessment of where the states have been in respect to higher education in the past 15-20 years.”

Although previous commission reports, such as the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, have touched on states’ roles, they have generally been directed towards universities, Hartle says.

“When 80 percent of students go to public institutions, and public finances decide social progress and economic competitiveness … the commission is to be applauded for taking a cold, hard look and issuing a strong call to state higher education systems,” he says.

— By Shilpa Banerji

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