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Higher Education Commission

Higher Education Commission
Gets Earful On Financial Aid Expansion

By Charles Dervarics

The federal government should increase need-based financial aid for postsecondary education, but reject controversial ideas to introduce standardized testing into colleges and universities, witnesses told a Bush administration review panel at two recent hearings.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education has held public forums nationwide after its leaders said they were considering wide-ranging changes in higher education. Among the changes discussed were redesigning the Pell Grant and requiring standardized testing for college students.

The standardized testing idea in particular was met with little enthusiasm at the commission hearing held last month, although the practice has become standard at the K-12 level as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Unless reduced to considering the most basic levels of knowledge, universitywide testing will not capture advanced learning or measure the value of the university experience,” said Dr. Robert A. Brown, president of Boston University, at the hearing.

Proponents have argued that standardized testing may provide useful information about the base knowledge that students gain by attending college. But each student’s course of study may be so different that it makes such comparisons meaningless, Brown said. Comparing engineering and fine arts students, for example, would yield little information about effective delivery of education. Even comparing employment data of such groups would be counterproductive, he said.

Instead of imposing standardized tests on college students, postsecondary institutions should do more to work with schools in their community to improve K-12 education. “It would seem best to put the emphasis on improving the preparation of our high school graduates for higher education,” Brown said.

One such example presented to the panel was a partnership between the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the Boston Public Schools that is aimed at improving science, math and technology scores at the schools.

Dr. Jack M. Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts, said the program helps provide access to higher education for Boston’s public school students, the majority of whom are racial minorities.

Several witnesses at the hearing also urged the commission to focus on raising the maximum Pell Grant and exploring new ideas to provide need-based financial aid. The maximum need-based grant has remained at $4,050 since 2002.

Dr. Mary L. Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College, suggested expanding Pell Grant eligibility to include stand-alone English as a Second Language programs. She said large numbers of Spanish speakers need the funding to improve their English language skills. She also said that because financial worries may dissuade some
low-income youth from even considering higher education, the commission could redesign Pell to follow needy students through middle and high school.

Fifield also criticized the newly approved academic competitiveness grant program that provides merit-based financial aid, saying it excludes many low-income students who lack access to quality secondary schools. The recent deficit reduction bill approved by Congress provides additional grants to students who have undertaken a “rigorous” high school education.

“Many low-income students don’t have the option of selecting their high school and could be ineligible for this aid through no fault of their own,” she said.

Pamala Silas, executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, recommended that the commission promote summer college orientation for American Indian students, saying such programs could increase access for American Indians and counter the isolation that can cause many of their first-generation college students to drop out.

Services and initiatives should also support the development of more American Indian faculty and improve research programs of interest to American Indian students. “There is a great need to increase the awareness of and participation in science and engineering disciplines,” Silas said.

The commission was created last year to promote a national dialogue on education, and its members are expected to present recommendations to the Bush administration by August.

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