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Old 08-14-2006, 04:57 PM   #1
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Federal Commission's Report Urges Higher Education Shake-Up

Trimmed-down version of an article that appeared in the New York Times a few days back.
Panel’s Report Urges Higher Education Shake-Up

The New York Times, August 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — A federal commission approved a final report on Thursday that urges a broad shake-up of American higher education. It calls for public universities to measure learning with standardized tests, federal monitoring of college quality, and sweeping changes in financial aid.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings established the panel a year ago, drawing members from sectors of higher education like community colleges, for-profit trade schools, liberal arts colleges and large research universities, public and private, as well as from the ranks of executives at IBM, Boeing, Microsoft and other businesses. Ms. Spellings urged the group to examine access, affordability and accountability, to determine whether colleges were turning out students qualified to compete in the global economy. The answer in too many cases, the panel said, is that they are not. "Too many Americans just aren’t getting the education that they need," the report said. "There are disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing and thinking skills we expect of college graduates."

The panel also called on policy makers and leaders in higher education to find new ways to control costs, saying college tuition should grow no faster than median family income, although it opposed price controls. The commission was created at a time of increasing tuitions. From 1999 to 2004, median family income grew 13% and average tuition 38%, according to federal data...The report recommended bolstering Pell grants, the basic building block of federal student aid, by making the program cover a larger percentage of public college tuition. That proposal could cost billions of dollars.

18 of the 19 members of the panel, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, voted to sign the report, which attacked increasing tuition costs and pointed to signs of complacency on some campuses. David Ward, who as president of the largest association of colleges and universities was the most powerful representative of the higher education establishment on the commission, refused to sign...Dr. Ward said that academia would take it seriously, but that he wanted to remain "free to contest" it. Several proposals, including those on testing and financial aid, aroused fierce opposition from university leaders and at points divided the panel.

The chairman, Charles Miller, an investor and a former chairman of the University of Texas Regents, had hoped to turn out a punchy report that would rattle academia with warnings of crisis. But in the last 6 weeks, the commission issued 6 drafts, watering down passages that had drawn criticism and eliminating one this week, written by Mr. Miller, that had encouraged expanding private loans as a share of student financial aid.

A proposal on standardized tests was also weakened at the last moment. Previous drafts said that "states should require" public universities to use standardized tests, but the final version said simply that universities "should measure student learning" with standardized tests.

Another council member, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 900 private institutions including liberal arts colleges, major research universities and church- and other faith-related colleges, attacked the recommendation to develop a national database to follow individual students’ progress as a way of holding colleges accountable for students’ success. The association called the proposal a dangerous intrusion on privacy, saying, "Our members find this idea chilling."

All the panel members who participated in a meeting on Thursday at the Education Department headquarters here expressed unanimity on some points, including that the report correctly identified critical challenges like increasing access to higher education for poor students and holding institutions more accountable for students who drop out or graduate with few skills.

The members seemed at odds on how to carry their recommendations forward. Some, like former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, called on President Bush to incorporate them in the Congressional agenda.
The final draft of the report is available here.

So...it's still not clear what precisely--if anything--will come out of this Commission's work from a policy standpoint (federal, state, university associations', or otherwise). However, the report does touch on a number of interesting issues, include some that have cropped up in FYM numerous times. I won't get into relaying everything I know about the Commission's research and debates thus far, but a few other issues underlying some of the points cited above are:

--The problem of grade inflation.
--The lack of a nationwide, coherent curriculum within various disciplines.
--The frequent complaint made by major employers to universities' career counselors that today's college graduates, as the report references, "have not actually mastered the reading, writing and thinking skills we expect of college graduates."
--The problem (with regard to standardized testing) of how exactly might one measure what college graduates have learned.
--The fact that universities tend to bristle at the suggestion that tuition costs are best reduced by the government taking more aggressive charge of how existing funds are allocated, rather than by increased funding; while for their part, student loan giants (e.g., Sallie Mae) tend to object to the idea of wholly private funding, because they want the backup of government subsidies there to cover them when students default on loans.
--Given that higher education is voluntary, should the government be getting into defining what it ought to consist of?

I'll hold off on my own opinions for now (they're all still pretty much in flux anyway) but would be interested in hearing what some of you think about the Commission's proposals.

yolland [at] interference.com

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Old 08-14-2006, 07:09 PM   #2
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I don't know. . .
Standardized tests for colleges sounds like a bad idea to me.

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Old 08-14-2006, 07:37 PM   #3
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That's interesting. I'll be exposed to academia for the first time in 10 years next week when I start classes at the local university.
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