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New Federal Commission to Examine Higher Education Strategy

Now that the administration has launched the No Child Left Behind initiative, the Department of Education is turning some attention to higher education.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings formed a 19-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education to examine issues such as skills students need to learn to compete in the global economy, and the assurance of a quality education for all students.

And community colleges are represented on the commission, with Dr. Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., getting the nod.

Nunley says that when Spellings’ chief of staff called and “invited me to be on the commission, I said I’d have a very hard time saying no because I’ve been so outspoken about the serious issues of access and affordability in education. He said ‘Yes, we’ve heard that.’”

The commission plans to conduct hearings around the country, and deliver findings and recommend strategies by Aug. 1, 2006. In announcing the commission, Spellings said “unlike K-12 education, we don’t ask a lot of questions about what we’re getting for our investment in higher education. And as a result, we’re missing some valuable information to help guide policy to ensure that our system remains the finest in the world. And parents have a tough time getting answers about the way it all works.”

Although Nunley recognizes that she can’t set the commission’s agenda, she does have some recommendations. “I’d like to see the commission wrestle with the issues of access, affordability and diversity. There is a much larger group of students coming out of high school today and a much higher proportion want to go to college. The group is much more diverse than in the past,” in terms of income levels, ethnic makeup and range of ages, she says.

“The price is going up, and more and more students are finding it hard to go to college. In quite a few community colleges, students are being turned away. I think that’s bad national policy and I want to have a chance to say so and make sure that doesn’t get worse,” Nunley says.
She says the commission should also take a look at NCLB’s effects. “If students are being prepared for college and we are not doing more to create capacity, are we creating false hopes and expectations?”
And maybe the commission should look at adjusting education delivery methods to adapt to changing learning patterns, she says.

“Can we offer classes at times we had not traditionally done classes” or use different delivery modes, such as combining on-campus with distance learning?

Another topic Nunley raises involves educating parents and the general public about the need for resources. “If the population is growing, you have to build more schools, add more teachers. People don’t make that connection enough at the collegiate end,” though they do for K-12, she says.

Commission members include presidents of colleges and universities, professional associations and businesses. The business reps are slanted highly toward technology, including top executives at software maker Autodesk, Inc.; IBM; Microsoft; and Boeing.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, says, “I hope this commission will help the country to think creatively about the economic and educational challenges facing us.” But he adds that “simply creating a commission is not enough. … The Bush administration has never developed, let alone implemented, a comprehensive policy to maintain America’s place at the top of the global economy. … If political leaders don’t quickly reexamine their priorities, then the academic leaders on this commission will find their task to be nearly impossible.”

Questions were also raised by the American Federation of Teachers in a letter to Spellings pointing out that the commission “does not include leaders of organizations such as ours that represent thousands upon thousands of college faculty.”

The commission planned to hold its first meeting in Washington on Oct. 17.

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