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Education Report Draws Fire From Own Committee

Education Report Draws Fire From Own Committee
Controversial draft focuses little attention on diversity, but is critical
of university spending, tuition increases.
By Charles Dervarics

A major restructuring of financial aid and greater accountability for colleges are two major themes of a blue-ribbon panel’s draft report on higher education reform. But the controversial draft focuses relatively little attention on diversity issues and already faces criticism from some of its own members, who must reach a consensus on recommendations by early fall.

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. “Colleges and universities have shown little inclination to cut costs and improve their productivity,” the study says. It also calls for a complete overhaul of the financial aid system, both to simplify the application process and to create more need-based assistance.

But the report’s strong rhetoric against many higher education practices is rankling members of the commission.

In a message to college presidents in late June, American Council on Education President David Ward called some of the recommendations “deeply troubling.” A member of the panel, Ward said the draft does not reflect many of the discussions that have taken place.

“I believe [the draft report] is seriously flawed and needs significant revision. I am particularly unhappy with the tone and the hostile, almost confrontational way it approaches higher education,” he wrote.

Among other conclusions, the draft criticizes the higher education system for  poor alignment with American high schools and for outdated teaching methods. The report also scolds higher education for “grade inflation with no clear link to achievement”  and for creating a campus culture that seems to “promote underachievement, anti-intellectualism and excessive socializing.”

The draft also recommends more need-based aid as part of a fundamental restructuring of the financial aid system. The panel would streamline federal programs, though the draft did not provide specifics.
To promote ease, the report would replace the bulky Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a simpler one-page form.

For many families, the FAFSA is “longer and more complicated than the federal tax return,” states 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 seeks a “significant” increase in need-based financial aid, noting a dramatic rise in unmet financial need for 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 says.

But, according to the report, responsibility for cost control lies with colleges. “College tuition should not rise faster than family incomes,” it says.

Another theme is internal reform within higher education to improve productivity and, as a result, help control costs. The draft is critical of university spending on athletics, housing and student centers, noting that many of these facilities are under-used.

“The result is that students, parents and policy makers are often left scratching their heads over the answers to basic questions,” from the true cost of college to graduation rates, the report says.

Although the study gives only brief attention to the question of diversity, it  cites “disturbing racial gaps in student achievement.” It also suggests that the college accreditation process encourage diversity in higher education. As a positive example, the report spotlights 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 Black churches in Los Angeles. The university also launched partnerships with Hispanic mothers of elementary school-age children to emphasize the importance of college awareness.

However, most of the recommendations focused on more general issues related to student retention and learning outcomes. According to the report, “unacceptable numbers of students fail to complete their studies at all, while even those who make it through college don’t always learn very much.” The draft urges 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,” the report says.

Increased cooperation between K-12 and higher education may help alleviate the problems, the report says. In addition, the report suggests that the nation find new, “imaginative” ways to meet the needs of
lifelong learners, expand early and dual enrollment programs for high school students and provide new consumer-friendly policies so that families can better assess college performance compared
with costs.

The draft was developed by a group of committee writers. Commission Chairman Charles Miller has said the report will undergo many changes before the final product is released.

But Ward, in his letter to fellow presidents, raised questions about whether the draft may have done damage to this process.

“It remains to be seen whether the commission can successfully complete a report that accurately describes the state of American higher education and fairly summarizes the challenges we face in
the areas of access, affordability and accountability,” he wrote.

Ward also expressed concern that the draft summarized only a small part of the panel’s deliberations, which have gone on for nearly a year. “The reality is, this draft was prepared by commission staff based on a highly selective reading of testimony and without the slightest input of commission members,” he wrote.

Reaction to the draft presents another challenge to a panel that is trying to deliver a groundbreaking report to the White House at the late stages of the Bush presidency.

While the president spoke out in favor of a larger Pell Grant when he ran in 2000, critics say there has been little movement on financial aid and other issues.

“It’s a little late in the Bush presidency to show an interest in higher education,” says Thomas Mortensen, an independent higher education analyst and publisher of Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

While Mortensen has not studied the new draft report, he says some reform-minded scholars have been skeptical of the panel because it may not have a broad enough membership to promote major changes in higher education.

Members of the commission met in Washington, D.C., to consider the report in late June. A final document is due to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings by mid-September.

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