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Financial Aid, Accountability Focus of Federal Panel, But Not Diversity

A major increase in need-based financial aid — plus more accountability for colleges — are among the major themes of a blue-ribbon federal panel’s draft report on higher education reform that focuses relatively little attention on diversity.

The report from the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education pulls no punches on many issues, calling colleges inefficiently run and poor at controlling costs and prices. It also calls for a total overhaul of the financial aid system, with more need-based financial aid to increase access opportunity.

As part of this financial aid reform, the report recommended a streamlining of federal programs but did not elaborate on the specifics. To promote ease of use by low-income students, the panel would replace the bulky Free Application for Federal Student Aid with a postcard-like application form.

For many families, the FAFSA is “longer and more complicated than the federal tax return,” read the 27-page report. With 17 separate financial aid and tax credit programs, the system is “overly complex and its multitude of programs sometimes redundant.”

The report sought a “significant” increase in need-based financial aid, noting a dramatic rise in unmet financial need for needy families earning less than $34,000 a year. Unmet need among these families grew by 80 percent from 1990 to 2004.

“Rising costs, combined with a confusing, inadequate financial aid system, leave some students struggling to pay for education that, paradoxically, is of uneven and at times dubious quality,” the document said.

Another theme is internal higher education reform to improve productivity and, as a result, help control costs. The draft was critical of university spending on athletics, housing and student centers, noting that many of these facilities are underused. Colleges also have a “disregard” for improving productivity, commission members said.

“The result is that students, parents and policy makers are often left scratching their heads over the answers to basic questions,” the report said.

The study devoted relatively little space to diversity, though it cited “disturbing racial gaps in student achievement.” Many of the recommendations focused on more general issues in student retention and learning outcomes. The commission’s report said “unacceptable numbers of students fail to complete their studies at all, while even those who make it though college don’t always learn very much.”

On other issues for students of color, the report mentioned that the college accreditation process should encourage diversity. As a positive example, it spotlighted a California State University program that sought to promote early awareness of college among diverse populations.

As part of the program, CSU campus presidents visited large African-American churches in Los Angeles. The university also launched partnerships with Hispanic mothers of elementary school-age children to emphasize the importance of college awareness.

But most of the document focused on more general changes in higher education, including the need to re-examine remediation programs. The draft report urged that more students come to college better prepared.

“Among high school graduates who do make it on to postsecondary education, a troubling number of undergraduates waste time — and taxpayer dollars — mastering English and math skills that they should have learned in high school.”

Increased cooperation between K-12 and higher education may help alleviate the problem, according to the draft. In addition, the nation must find new, “imaginative” ways to meet the needs of lifelong learners, such as expanding early college enrollment and dual enrollment programs for high school students. The nation must also provide new consumer-friendly policies so that families can better assess college performance compared with costs.

A group of writers developed the draft, which contains no recommendations. Commission Chairman Charles Miller has said preliminary studies will undergo many changes before release of the final product, which is expected in early fall.


— By Charles Dervarics

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