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The Truman Commission Redux
August 9, 2009 - 11:31pm

In his previous post, Jamie Merisotis makes a compelling case for the importance of seeing American higher education in the context of higher education worldwide, and for treating our system of higher education as an imperiled competitive advantage.

As Jamie notes, U.S. educational attainment “has remained flat for 40 years” -- a fact all the more worrisome in light of rising college enrollments , with too many students failing to complete degrees. Getting more students from an increasingly diverse school-age population to and through college has become a national economic imperative. If we are going to get back to #1, it is time to give the nation’s colleges and universities some close, serious systematic attention.

It is time, in fact, for a second Truman Commission on Higher Education. In 1946, President Truman convened a commission to chart directions for higher education in America in the post-war era. The Commission’s plan, laid out in its 1947 report, Higher Education for Democracy, has guided the nation’s colleges and universities for more than 60 years.

The far-seeing Truman Commission identified barriers to access in higher education that needed to be surmounted: race, religion, gender, income, and geography. It called for the radical expansion of two-year colleges, which it labeled community colleges, and stated that 49 percent of the population was capable of higher education. It recommended a program of financial aid and a renewal of general education. It described the years after the war as “a time of crisis” and saw education as “the biggest and most hopeful” potential remedy.

A little more than a decade later, Clark Kerr led the creation of the California Master Plan, built largely on the Truman Commission recommendations. The plan defined the mission of higher education in the state and created three distinct sectors to assure both access and excellence. It also provided choice, so that students could attend the sector of higher education best matched to their interests and abilities. The model was deemed so important that TIME magazine put Kerr on its cover for this work.

Five years later, with the Higher Education Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson provided the financial aid programs to make these goals, to a great extent, realities. And so, because of the work of the Truman Commission and the models it spawned, access, choice and excellence have been the guiding principles of American higher education — at least rhetorically — for over half a century.

Today, with the promises of access and choice fading and excellence threatened, we need another Truman Commission to help American higher education face challenges offered by the global marketplace, as well as major economic, demographic, and technological shifts.

Many of these challenges come from outside higher education. In an era when more than two out of three high school graduates attend some form of postsecondary education, government regards higher education as a mature industry — not a growth industry, as in the decades after World War II. In the postwar years, government merely sought the prompt expansion of campuses, faculties, and enrollments. Today, it demands efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. Government is examining issues it would in the past have delegated to universities, such as tuition pricing, graduation rates, faculty workloads, and other historically internal issues. Controls and regulation are increasing. Increasingly, government may treat higher education in the same fashion as the health care industry.

Another part of the problem is demographic. In the years ahead, numbers of small, nonselective, low-endowment colleges in the Northeast, Midwest, and Middle Atlantic states will close. HBCUs, constrained by declining resources, will struggle even harder to maintain quality and critical mass. In the Sunbelt, there will not be enough higher education to meet the needs of ballooning populations. California alone faces a tidal wave of 500,000 new students.

The problem also has economic and technological components. Higher education is unprepared for a global information economy that will demand lifelong education, higher levels of skills and knowledge, new fields of research and instruction, new staffing patterns, and new relationships with the rest of the nation’s education system. This era will bring increasing competition from for-profit postsecondary educators and international universities. Meanwhile, some of these same competitors are already taking advantage of the gap between our students’ extensive use of digital learning technologies and our institutions’ continuing reliance traditional methods of teaching and learning.

Even with all these external pressures, we have to admit that part of the problem also lies within higher education. Its sectors and purposes have become blurred and confused. Even the California Master Plan is broken. Higher education is seen increasingly as isolated, out of touch, unwilling to serve public needs, self-serving and unable to control its spending. Once higher education stood on a pedestal. It no longer does.

While some of this is misperception, some is real. The truth is that higher education in its current state cannot propel the nation into the 21st century as it spurred national growth after World War II. Current higher education leaders have been and will continue to be unable to spearhead this effort. Their focus is short-term, concerned principally with preserving the status quo. The mission of higher education, the structure of higher education, the financing of higher education, and the public policies that this will require need to be rethought and reformulated.

Although I am in general not a big fan of commissions, committees, and reports--most of which amount to a single day’s press coverage--it is time for new leadership to take a hard look at American higher education. Right now, with a still-new administration in Washington digging in on education issues, this is the moment to muster such leadership.

To succeed, the new commission would need the same kind of focused but limited membership I proposed in a previous call for a higher education summit : representatives of the major sectors of higher education, plus key state and federal leaders, but not so many as to make its administration unwieldy or slow. Most important, it needs the kind of Presidential mandate for change that the Truman Commission had from the outset.

More than at any point in recent memory, national leadership now seems to understand that we have to fix higher ed--primarily by attending to access and preparation--in order to get back to #1. The need for a new Truman Commission couldn’t be more urgent, and the time is right.

Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

 

 

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