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Higher Ed. Reform Commission Closing In On Final Recommendations


More federal financial aid for needy students should accompany any comprehensive plan to improve the nation’s post-secondary system, many members of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education said late last week.

With the commission’s final recommendations still several months away, many members agreed on the need to increase financial aid to low-income students at a May 18 meeting in Washington, D.C. But there was little consensus on how to accomplish this goal, as some panelists wanted large new investments of federal money while others favored a reallocation of existing funds. Ideas ranged from the controversial — limiting or revoking the popular federal tuition tax credits — to putting the onus on colleges to provide more need-based aid.

Financial aid was one part of wide-ranging discussions that also focused on accreditation, affordability and consumer information. Several members said they wanted changes to the accreditation system to make it a stronger lever to promote quality. A report prepared for the panel has called for eliminating regional accrediting bodies in favor of one national panel.

But the commission also showed little consensus on this issue. “I don’t think we look to accreditation to provide accountability,” said Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. Others questioned whether the accreditation system can address the many needs of students.

Some members also continued to focus on the need for more standardized testing to demonstrate whether colleges are effectively educating students.

“We’re unlikely to improve it if we don’t measure it,” Mendenhall said. “We can significantly increase the testing of student learning and it would be a benefit.”

But critics noted that students already are tested more than many international peers in K-12 and higher education. Students already pay significant sums of money for courses in which they receive grades, said Dr. Charles Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rather than more testing, the issue may be grade inflation that undermines existing standards.

“If grades have no significance, then that’s something we need to work on,” he said.

During their two-day Washington, D.C., meeting, members also floated proposals to better link high school with post-secondary study. Dr. Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, in Rockville, Md., recommended college prep tests in 10th or 11th grade so that students spend their senior years better preparing for college. Others recommended a new 12th-grade standardized test to show whether graduating seniors are ready for college or the workforce.

The Bush administration is looking for groundbreaking ideas, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told the panel. She urged commission members to “be as concrete and bold as you possibly can” when developing recommendations. As a result of several commission hearings held so far, Spellings said, “I think we’ve hit a nerve.”

The commission was to finish its report by Aug. 1, but Spellings has set a new deadline of mid-September. The new date will allow more give and take among members and may ensure that the report receives greater attention. An August release would come when many colleges as well as Congress are not in session.

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