With the ink barely dry on the signatures of all but one member of a national commission formed to consider the future of U.S. higher education, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is moving quickly and aggressively to consider how to implement some of the recommendations.
Even before she received the final draft that the Commission for the Future of Higher Education approved in mid-August, Spellings set dates for four regional hearings, kicking off a process that could result in new federal regulations in particularly controversial areas that the commission addressed. They include accreditation of colleges and universities and public reporting of college finances and students' academic performance.
The first hearing was held last month at the University of California, Berkeley. The others are scheduled for October 5 at Loyola University in Chicago, November 2 at the Royal Pacific Hotel Conference Center in Orlando (Fla.), and November 8 at the Department of Education headquarters in Washington.
Technically, the rule-making process, including the hearings, will consider proposed regulations under the Higher Education Reconciliation Act that Congress passed last February. That measure called for changes in student loan programs and in funding for new Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and National Science and Mathematics to Retain Talent (SMART) programs targeted at high-achieving, low-income students.
The DOE intends to form two committees to propose possible rules changes to accommodate the legislative mandate. But in announcing the rule-making plans, the department also added two more committees with vaguely defined missions that seemed to give them leeway to consider the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Although skimpy on details, the commission's recommendations cover several broad areas, including accreditation, accountability, access, student financial aid, quality improvement, lifelong learning, and global competitiveness.
Either by regulation or legislation, the bottom-line result of the commission's work could be expanded federal involvement in postsecondary issues, including financial aid program changes, cost controls with tuition tied to family incomes, and monitoring of educational quality.
As noted in the September issue of University Business ("Commission Report Leaves Higher Ed Questions Unanswered, p. 15), 18 of the 19 commission members signed off on the final document. It followed three earlier drafts, each revised to help gain agreement of members on controversial issues like standardized testing. The final report urged colleges and universities to use standardized tests to measure student achievement; an earlier draft, in stronger language, said states should "require" institutions to use the tests.
The commission member who didn't sign the report was David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (ACE). Ward's refusal to sign was significant, since ACE wields considerable clout in higher education policy making in Washington as the umbrella organization of most of the other higher ed associations in the capital. While commending the commission's effort, Ward cited several "serious issues of concern," including that the "diversity of missions within higher education" aren't recognized.
On accountability issues, the report "seemed to be mandating a more top-down, federally controlled approach, which is a new thrust and pretty troubling," explains Tim McDonough, ACE's public affairs director.
On financial issues, ACE objects to "the notion that family income would be used as a benchmark for tuition prices," McDonough says. "We thought that wasn't fair. No other industry benchmarks its prices based on family income. It's based on the cost of doing business." In the higher ed business, tuition should be based on "the budget realities for each particular college and university," McDonough adds.
Individual associations that are ACE members have weighed in with their own assessments of the commission's work. While the report was generally positive, it "does not entirely capture the current realities and challenges facing community colleges," the American Association of Community Colleges asserted in a statement. AACC hailed the commission's call for a substantial increase in need-based student aid, but cited the "misconception that increases in student financial aid fuel tuition increases." That's "patently untrue" at community colleges, the statement said.
Commenting on the third draft of the report before the final version, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) said "the devil is in the details" and the details "chart a dismal direction" for undergraduate learning and the quality of American research. It noted a particular absence of attention to faculty. Apart from a "cameo mention," faculty "disappear altogether from the commission's vision for higher learning in America," AAC&U stated. "All in all, the report is deeply disappointing," it concluded.
The Association of American Universities (AAU), which represents 60 leading public and private research universities in the United States, expressed concern that the report "deals almost exclusively with undergraduate education" and says little about the multiple roles of universities, "especially with regard to research and graduate education."
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) registered its objections to provisions of the report that it said would intrude on student and family privacy through a federal student unit record data system. NAICU members "find this idea chilling," David L. Warren, the association's president, wrote in a letter to Commission Chairman Charles Miller two days before the final draft was issued. Miller told reporters after the document was released that it should be the focus of a "national dialogue" among business leaders and governors as well as educators.
Although the education department could implement some of the panel's recommendations by regulation, some others, including simplifying the federal student aid system, would require action by Congress, said McDonough. "That will be very controversial," and it remains to be seen whether Spellings will go to Capitol Hill.
A third route Spellings could take, said McDonough, is simply to "encourage colleges and universities to do these things on their own." But through her quick initiative to begin a rule-making process, Spellings seems to favor a tougher approach.
In other legislative news, the ACG and SMART Grant programs need changes to make them workable, according to ACE. In comments sent to the education agency on behalf of eight higher ed associations, Ward cited troublesome provisions, including requiring institutions to analyze in detail all transcripts for first-year ACG recipients, establishing eligible academic majors for SMART Grants, and linking participation in the two grants to eligibility for the Pell Grant program.
Congress has authorized $4.5 billion to fund the ACG and SMART Grant programs as part of the deficit-reduction legislation it approved last winter. ACGs are available to freshmen and sophomores who have completed a "rigorous" secondary school program. SMART Grants are reserved for juniors and seniors majoring in science, math, technology, or a "critical" foreign language who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in their major field.
Earlier, some members of Washington's higher ed community had questioned the definition of "rigorous" study program, suggesting it meant federal involvement in decisions on high school curricula. That concern might come up again during the rule-making process getting underway.
Another commission's work has been translated into legislation that appears to be without controversy. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) introduced the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Act (S. 3744) in midsummer to increase the number of U.S. students who study abroad to one million per year, up from fewer than 200,000 now.
The measure also seeks to expand the participation of minority, low-income, and community college students in study-abroad programs, as well as to boost the number of students who go to non-traditional countries in the developing world.
The bill stems from a report released last year by the bipartisan Abraham Lincoln Commission on Study Abroad that had been appointed by Congress and President George W. Bush. The legislation already has the strong support of ACE and other organizations, including NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which hailed it as "a historic opportunity."
With bipartisan sponsorship and the backing of the higher ed community, chances for eventual enactment of the measure appear to be good.
The outgoing Congress approved legislation to renew the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Act, which provides grants to community colleges and high schools to conduct career and technical training programs. In a change to the current law, however, states are required to statistically measure postsecondary performance. The bill also creates an independent advisory committee for the implementation of accountability measures.
Alan Dessoff, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.