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Obama’s Higher Ed Goals At Odds With States’ Budget Realities

LOS ANGELES  – States’ higher education systems must dramatically overhaul themselves if they intend to fulfill President Obama’s goal of remaking America home to the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, experts said during a conference held by the University of Southern California.

 “We have high performing institutions that collectively are not meeting our public goals,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, a research and policy group.”The state policy agenda is weaker than what it was 20 years ago,” helping prompt a public opinion that universities don’t deserve more funding, she said.

“We really need to rethink public policy. Having said that, institutions have got to step up their responsibility in the agenda. In way too many states, the language about institutions’ responsibility is somewhere between muted and negative,” Wellman said.

 Analysts and experts identified challenges and solutions for higher education during a conference entitled “What Matters Now: College Access and Success in the Age of Obama,” hosted by the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice and sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and College Board.

 Policy makers, nonprofit leaders, and university enrollment officers heard how Obama’s multi-billion education initiative promises to make over college systems. “The conference seeks to provide the road map to educational progress and success over the next decade,” said Jerome Lucido, executive director of the USC center.

 One panelist, Dennis P. Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, recommended that the 50 governors hold a summit to renew their commitment to boosting the degree pool. Most funding does not come from the federal government but rather from student tuition and state coffers.”I get two responses (about improving educational attainment), and the first one is ‘we already got the best education system in the world and why mess with a good thing,'” Jones said.

 “The second one is ‘I accept the challenge and we can’t get there from here.’ That’s a more fatalistic response,” Jones said. “In order to get there, the United States and the individual states need a clear agenda. They need a fundamental change in the way they fund higher education.”

 Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said a bleak economy hurts all states, though some indicators show an end to the recession. For the first time on record, states’ overall spending declined for two consecutive years, shrinking 4.8 percent in 2009 and projected to decrease 4 percent this fiscal year, Hurley said.

 This climate has created two contradictory movements: Obama wants more college graduates, but states are mired in funding crises that reduce enrollments. “Enrollment capacity is a huge issue. Here in California, it’s been tremendous at the UC and CSU systems – tens of thousands of students have been turned away and hundreds of thousands in the community colleges have been turned away because of capacity issues,” Hurley said.

 Roderick Chu, chancellor emeritus of the Ohio Board of Regents and a past trustee of the College Board, said universities need to change their focus from “access” to “completion” goals. Colleges also need to stop looking at themselves as “gatekeepers” and adopt a “facilitator” mentality in getting students to graduate.

 “The fact is that the United States spends twice what the rest of the world does. However, our education results haven’t changed while the rest of the world has been catching up. Ours is one of the few that has been falling in past decades,” Chu said.

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