Commission Recommends Higher Education Reforms

Published October 1, 2006

Libertarians and university groups had mixed reactions to a list of reforms the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education sent to the U.S. Department of Education in mid-September.

The department is conducting regional meetings this fall with college administrators to discuss how to implement the commission’s recommendations by using a federal rule-making process, which bypasses having Congress pass legislation.

Among the recommendations:

  • “that the U.S. commit to an unprecedented effort to expand higher education access and success …”
  • “that the entire student financial aid system be restructured …”
  • “the creation of a robust culture of accountability and transparency throughout higher education …”
  • “the development of a national strategy for lifelong learning …”
  • “increased federal investment in areas critical to our nation’s global competitiveness.”

Broad Scope

The aims of the recommendations are broad, but some of the details–including establishing a federal system that would track all students through college and beyond–are disturbing, critics say.

One of the commissioners, Dr. Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio State University and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, said he signed the final draft with some reservations.

“There’s no discussion of political diversity or grade inflation, little discussion of whether we are challenging our students enough in our expectations,” Vedder explained. “The reason I did sign it is it said several things that were critical of higher education and pointed out the inefficiencies that learning outcomes are not well-measured, that it’s altogether too costly, that access has been denied to a lot of low-income students in order to raise the rankings of universities that are concerned about that.”

Increased Accountability

The commission faced a quandary on one point: increasing accountability for state-funded institutions.

“There’s a big concern about the fact that when students go to college, we have no idea what they’re learning,” Vedder said.

“We have no measure of performance,” Vedder noted. “On the one hand, it’s ridiculous to give federal and state money to institutions that can’t prove their students are learning anything–but if you put mandates on the schools, it violates the anti-regulation theory.”

Instead of mandates, the commission recommended having colleges report on students’ progress in a variety of other ways, including dropout rates and graduation rates after four, five, and six years, Vedder said, “things that will tell us what your chances of graduating in four years are, and what you learned.”

Student Database Misgivings

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), a Washington, DC-based interest group, endorsed the recommendations but sent Charles Miller, the commission’s chairman, a detailed letter in early August explaining what its members found to be good and bad about them.

According to the letter, NAICU praised:

  • increasing low-income students’ access to college education;
  • recognizing the need for increasing state-funded institutions’ accountability;
  • increasing need-based financial aid;
  • recognizing the need for more resources in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics;
  • reforming education to produce “globally literate” graduates; and
  • addressing “the need [to establish] important policies on international students wishing to study in the United States.”

But the group objected to the notion of a federal student-tracking database.

“A centralized national database tracking college students, their academic progress, financial aid information, enrollment, and performance in their careers is profoundly counter to the democratic underpinnings of higher education and American society,” NAICU President David L. Warren wrote. “Our members find this idea chilling.”

Varying Endorsements

The Association of American Universities (AAU), another Washington-based interest group, approved the recommendations but said in an August 10 statement it shared some of the concerns cited by American Council on Education President David Ward, who was the only person on the 19-person commission not to sign the final report.

“The analysis offered by the report and the solutions it recommends do not take into account the enormous range of institutions that comprise higher education,” AAU President Robert M. Berdahl wrote. “The report also fails to acknowledge the variety of innovations initiated by college and university faculty to improve teaching and learning on our campuses.”

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) endorsed the list of recommendations without reservation.

“The recommendations are solid and worthy of our support, they are good for higher education and good for the country. AASCU acknowledges the Commissions’ [sic] concerns and will work to address them,” the group reported on its Web site.

States’ Role

Although the U.S. Department of Education is discussing ways to implement the recommendations through a federal rule-making procedure, Vedder said Congress and the states still have a role to play.

“Most public higher education is still a state and local responsibility,” Vedder said. “The report will have no meaning unless there’s some action on it.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.