Commission on the Future of Higher Ed

Public university accountability system expands ways to report student learning

Reboot of Voluntary System of Accountability aims to give institutions more flexibility in reporting student learning -- but new options (including non-standardized one) may not have expanded enough to win many converts.

Margaret Spellings's vision for higher education (essay)

In the week between the revelation that the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors was looking at former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to lead the 16-campus system and her ultimate selection last Friday, most of the reporting and commentary focused on whether the board and the presidential search committee were following procedures.

Now that she has been selected to run one of the country’s best-respected public university systems, however, we need to understand her vision for the future of American higher education. As secretary, Margaret Spellings put together one of the most high-profile commissions on higher education in American history. In 2006, the commission issued the Spellings Report, or as it is formally known, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”

That document sought to transform the purpose and structure of American higher education to, in the report’s words, ensure “future economic growth.”

Purpose

At the heart of the report is the desire to transform universities so that they serve solely the needs of the market. Students need credentials and skills to get ahead and employers want programs and research that meet their needs. Thus, the report seeks a higher education system “that creates new knowledge, contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and empowers citizens.”

It becomes clear, however, that only the central phrase matters. There is nothing in the report that recognizes the need for basic noncommercial research in the arts and sciences, or that states why intellectual inquiry is good on its own terms. And citizenship barely registers in the rest of the document.

The commission's report completely ignores the American tradition of liberal general education. In fact, the phrases “liberal education” and “liberal arts” do not even appear in the document. Citizens, then, need to be empowered to get ahead, but not to be part of a democratic polity.

While the report seeks to promote “social mobility,” it does not seek to offer more students access to the knowledge offered by a college education but to develop what the report calls “intellectual capital.” This is made clear by what the report states to be the “value of higher education” -- to feed the “new knowledge-driven economy.”

In fact, the civic and other benefits of higher education are presented as a byproduct and not a purpose of higher education. In the section “Findings Regarding the Value of Higher Education,” at the end of a long list concerning “the transformation of the world economy” and the relationship between degrees and salaries, the report acknowledges as an afterthought that higher education “produces broader social gains.” Yet the report clearly places the civic and cultural purposes of higher education as secondary to the economic: “Colleges and universities are major economic engines, while also serving as civic and cultural centers.”

In the section entitled “Findings Regarding Learning,” the meaning of citizenship is linked to people “who are able to lead and compete in the 21st-century global marketplace,” not who care and think deeply about the public welfare because they have received a serious general education in the arts and sciences. According to the report, the purpose of learning is not to gain wisdom, ethics or insight, but to develop intellectual capital, or, stated more clearly, to reduce one’s mind into a profit-generating entity that improves one’s own salary while serving the needs of American business.

Structure

The Spellings Report recognizes that higher education exists in a “consumer-driven environment,” but rather than resist the commodification of education, the report instead uses this as context to argue that student consumers care little about “whether a college has for-profit or nonprofit status” and whether classes are online or in buildings. But students are not consumers but students, and institutions of learning have the responsibility to educate those who do not yet know what they are seeking nor what they need. To treat education as just another market good is to mistake its very nature.

Because the commissioners expected resistance from traditional higher education institutions, the report embraces all the buzzwords that have come to be associated with the idea of disruptive innovation. Its authors presume that higher education is a “mature enterprise.” “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril,” did not respond to a changing society, the report warns. New technology and global competition mandate a fundamental transformation of education institutions. Given the growing cost of tuition and that “the prospects for a return to a time of generous state subsidies are not good,” the report urges “a focused program of cost cutting and productivity improvements.”

The question, then, is how these cuts and productivity gains will be achieved. While the report does not explicitly advocate doing away with expensive things like faculty members with tenure and academic freedom and campuses with classrooms in which students interact with teachers, these goals are hinted at. The report explicitly embraces “new providers and new paradigms, from for-profit universities to distance learning.” It urges states to promote “both traditional and electronic delivery of college courses in high school.”

The report aspires to see “the dissemination of technological advances in teaching that lower costs on a quality-adjusted basis.” It urges the elimination of “regulatory and accreditation barriers to new models in higher education that will increase supply and drive costs down.” That final phrase refers to institutions like Western Governors University, which, as I have argued elsewhere, eliminates the traditional role of faculty members, offers no meaningful liberal education and outsources curricular design. (Western Governors’ president, Robert Mendenhall, was one of the report's commissioners.)

Finally, the report embraces the accountability movement. It advocates a national “consumer-friendly” database, a recommendation that President Obama has made one of his priorities. His recent College Scorecard offers the public information about institutions’ cost, graduation rates and graduates’ salaries, reinforcing the Spellings Report’s presumption that a successful college generates intellectual capital as measured by graduates’ earnings.

Contexts

The Spellings Commission’s ideas and conclusions did not, of course, emerge from terra nova. For decades, the “culture wars” have convinced conservative critics that liberal professors in the liberal arts are not to be trusted. But if the professors can’t be trusted, policy makers have had to find a group of people they could trust. They found those people in the business community. Yet business leaders are no less biased than college professors.

While many in the business world no doubt value their own liberal education, when it comes to higher education, at least according to the Spellings Report, employers want graduates that meet the workforce’s needs. They want skills, but there is nothing in the report to suggest that the report’s authors (nor its sponsors, like Spellings) nor employers care about the actual knowledge and insights that come from a good college education.

The shift to treating higher education as a consumer good also reflects a broader decline in our faith in the authority of the university. Faculty members themselves lost faith that they have something to teach young people. Over time, core curricula gave way to electives, as exemplified by Brown University’s 1969 New Curriculum, which removed all general requirements in order to empower students to find their own way to the truth. Brown’s approach at least was intellectual, but across America, colleges and universities sought to appeal to consumer tastes. They offered the programs that students wanted along with the pools, climbing walls and other amenities that they desired. It is not surprising that business is today the largest undergraduate major in America.

Finally, the UNC case demonstrates a changing understanding of the role of trustees. Groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have urged university trustees to play a more active managerial role in shaping the university. They urge trustees to defer less to presidents and faculty. Yet, as the former University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III wrote in the wake of the UVa Board of Visitors’ own efforts at disruptive innovation, “trustees are fiduciaries -- legally responsible for assets, financial and other. As a condition of office, they accept obligations to sustain assets that do not belong to them, and to serve the interests of others.” They are “people with obligations, not people with powers.” And at the heart of their obligation is to ensure that the institutions with which they are entrusted carry out their purpose.

The End of the University?

But what is that purpose? Trusteeship entails responsibility for that purpose, not efforts at disrupting it. According to Margaret Spellings, universities do not exist to cultivate the life of the mind. Intellectual exploration does not count if it cannot be commercialized or be proven to generate “intellectual capital.” In reality, Spellings’s report offers a vision of the university without its academic purposes, personnel and practices. In short, Spellings forces us to ask whether American universities ought to be academic institutions. And by hiring her, the members of UNC’s Board of Governors have made their answer to that question known.

But for those of us who think that universities exist for academic purposes -- to teach academic knowledge and skills, to pass on academic virtues, and to sustain academic research -- the stakes could not be higher. Spellings offers an anti-intellectual understanding of the university. For Americans who think intellectual life still matters, there are two choices: fight back and, if that fails, take the academy into exile.

Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

The View From the Peanut Gallery

Time to call the game on higher education reform. To throw open the window and scream, “I can’t take it anymore!” I’ve been at this for decades. Nothing unusual about my day today.  

Two uniformed doormen opened the doors of the five-star Copley Plaza Hotel for me today. I was, after all, on my way into the gold leaf, mirrored Versailles lobby, as Testimony # 38, at a public hearing by the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. So my tag said.  

Where better to look down the money hole of U.S. higher education than Copley Square? Named after an aristocratic 18th-century painter, the square is a trapezoid. Why didn’t Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, use this as an example in her testimony about the need for math education?  

Tobacco chiefs declaring no relation between cancer and smoking could learn from college presidents and cost. In the morning, speaking by invitation only, were presidents and chancellors. The foxes on henhouse security. No one gagged when Larry Bacow, president of Tufts University, really said, “Our costs are completely beyond our control.” No one even laughed.

Of the presidents, only Mary Fifield of Bunker Hill Community College actually brought suggestions or mentioned the odds against low-income students graduating from college or the scandal of merit scholarships for the rich at the expense of Pell Grants to the poor.

Bacow and Hockfield were long gone for the only voice raised in outrage all day. Jason Pramas, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, testified, “Needless to say, we’re skeptical about the commission. It seems stacked with corporate representatives, conservative think tanks, Bush appointees,” he said. “And holding a bare handful of meetings and small public hearings like this one seems a rather poor way of taking the pulse of American higher education.”  

At the hotel front desk, I asked Tenneal Banks if she planned to testify. “No, I’m working.” Every day, she leaves Providence, R.I., at 5 a.m. to work in Boston at the hotel. She’s back for night school at Johnson and Wales University every evening. A full course load. What would she say to the commission? Too hard to raise the money to pay for her education.

Sean Comeau, a staffer on the concierge floor, also wasn’t testifying. He had years of loans to pay off.  He thought the commission should give more status to community colleges. “No one at my high school would admit that’s where they were going.  But it’s the only way in for lots of people.”  

Did the Copley Plaza have a tuition reimbursement plan, I asked another, who just laughed.  “You can’t have my name or I’ll get into trouble,” she said.  

I had signed up for the hearing on the Web a couple weeks ago.  E-mail last week brought confirmation of my three minutes to testify.  

“We encourage you to address the following issues and questions:

  • How accessible is higher education today? Is this changing?
  • Do students have access to the institutions best suited to their needs and abilities?
  • What is the real cost of educating college students?

And so on. With Pell Grants frozen (and Bush proposing yet another year’s freeze), with commercial banks charging usurious interest rates for student loans, with cuts in student aid, why not the Copley Plaza? At $279 plus tax per night, the best rate according to the hotel’s Web site, I figure the hearing cost at least two Pell Grants. Henry Hardenbergh, architect of the Copley Plaza, also designed the Plaza in New York. As Terry Perlin, my History 101 professor years ago at Williams College, used to say, “I have nothing against fiction. But who needs it? The truth is unbelievable.” The February commission meeting was at a seaside resort in San Diego.  

I have this crazy idea that the U.S. can afford to educate everyone to a level of literacy and math sufficient to have choices in their own lives. I’ve done hard time as the CFO of a state university system. I packed my day-job colleagues at work off to India this week and took a day off to testify. In a hotel basement conference room. Ninety-nine percent white audience. Few younger than 40. Most of us older.  

Here’s the set piece. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. The presidents go on with the usual prattle about how much more college graduates earned. Never mind that the earnings come long after student loans are due. And the presidents are long gone by the afternoon public testimony, where even students at the supposedly less expensive state schools described their staggering debt load. Where were the students from Harvard or MIT? Or my schools, Williams and Yale?

Nine presidents had the morning to themselves, with no time limits. We, the people, had three minutes each and a timer with lights and a buzzer. Yellow light for 30 seconds remaining. Red light and the buzzer meant stop talking. Nearly 50 speakers, students, trade groups, a brave young woman with Down syndrome whose federal aid had been cut, crammed into the same time as the nine presidents.  

Joshua Chaisson, from the University of Southern Maine, one of the only students, stood beside me at the back of the room in the morning.  

“I’m the only person from all of the state of Maine. That pisses me off,” he said. “None of the presidents or chancellors. The students are more active than the people paid $250,000 to run the system.” Chaisson is the first generation in his family to go to college. A junior economics major, he’d skipped three classes to be there.  

On my way out -- I’d hit the red light and the buzzer -- I stopped for commissioner David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. I gave him a gentle pat on the back. He was talking to a reporter.  

“Go for it. We’re expecting great things from you,” I said. He rolled his eyes and said, “Right.”  

Author/s: 
Wick Sloane
Author's email: 

Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts.

From Foxes to Hedgehogs

My old friend Archilochus, the Greek lyric poet who has been resting comfortably since the Seventh Century B.C., has been getting a lot of rousing attention lately. And that’s a good thing considering what’s been happening recently in Washington, D.C.

A new federal commission formed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been pushing the idea of holding colleges more accountable for the outcomes of their undergraduate education, which has prompted talk of a federally mandated assessment. I don’t know anything that would make it harder to improve student learning than a national or federal assessment. And that’s where Archilochus can help.

Years ago Sir Isaiah Berlin picked up the Greek poet’s famous aphorism, "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one thing,” and used it as the title of his famous essay, and now Philip Tetlock, in his new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is it? (Princeton University Press, 2005) has classified pundits into two categories: Hedgehogs, who have a single big idea or explanation, and Foxes, who look for a lot of intersecting causes. (He found that, by and large, the Foxes do better at predicting what’s to come, except once in a while when the prickly Hedgehogs see something really important, and don’t get distracted, no matter what.)

Most of us in academe are foxes, but I want to suggest that we think like hedgehogs for a while, and concentrate on one thing and one thing only -- student learning. Although we can’t ignore the political context, we shouldn’t do this in reaction to the perceived pressure from the federal commission. We should do it, instead, because it’s the one thing on which the flourishing of liberal education most depends right now. We need to do it for our students and for ourselves as educators.

When I became president of the Teagle Foundation two and a half years ago, I worried a lot about the alleged decline and fall of liberal education. The figures I studied showed a decreasing percentage of undergraduates majoring in the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts; some colleges that I visited, or whose leaders I met, seemed to be turning their backs on liberal education; short term marketing strategies seemed to be eclipsing long term educational values. 

Recently, however, I’ve experienced another eclipse, one in which three tendencies I have been observing block out my old worries. The three trends are:

  • A shift in goals from content to cognition
  • The demand for accountability
  • A new knowledge base for teaching

None of these is an unambiguous Good Thing, and there are enough tricks and traps in each of these trends to challenge both foxes and hedgehogs. But in my view  -- on balance -- the collision of these trends present the opportunity to take liberal education to a new level.

It is now possible, in ways that were out of our reach just a few years ago, to teach better and greatly to invigorate student engagement and learning. We can do that, I am convinced, while recommitting ourselves and our institutions to the core educational values of liberal education.

This all comes with a big “IF.”   We can reach that higher level only if we focus, focus, focus on student learning -- all of us, faculty, deans, presidents, foundation officers.  We all have to become hedgehogs.

Let me explain why I feel so confident that if we focus in this way, liberal education can reach that  new level of excellence. In my explanation I will say a few words about each of the three tendencies to which I just alluded, and then try to imagine what liberal education could be like if they are brought together in an integrated system.

1. First, “from content to cognition,” that is, a shift in the stated goals of liberal education from certain subject matter that every educated person should know to certain cognitive capacities that ought to be developed in all students. Over the past few decades, many colleges and universities have come to define their goals as the development of cognitive capacities such as analytical reasoning, critical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression, and moral reasoning. Over the same period the idea that all students should become acquainted with certain texts, topics, and aspects of human experience has pretty much disappeared from curricular thinking.

Curmudgeonly old classicist that I am, I find it hard to imagine a liberal education in which students do not meet Socrates and confront his insistence that the unexamined life is not worth living. Nor can I convince myself that these cognitive goals can be attained in total abstraction, without the specificity and challenge contributed by disciplinary knowledge. Content still matters.

But the shift from content to cognition does have one great benefit: It compels us to think hard about what we want students to have gained once they complete a course or a curriculum. It should make us be explicit about how each course, maybe each assignment, contributes to one cognitive goal or another. In educational jargon, it makes us more “intentional” and thereby much more likely to succeed.

2. Accountability. We are also witnessing a widening demand in many sectors of American society for greater accountability. We owe it all to our friends at Enron, and all the other wonderful playgrounds of corporate greed and corruption. But education is not going to escape the demand for accountability, nor will assessment be restricted to K-12 education. As my friend Steve Wheatley, of the American Council of Learned Societies, put it, “The train is a-comin’ and its name is assessment.” 

More systematic assessment of the results of higher education is, as you well know, being demanded by accrediting agencies, governing boards, state legislators, and increasingly the general public.  Now, with a federal commission on board the roar of the engine is getting louder and closer.

You and your colleagues may not like to see that train bearing down on your tranquil campus. And you may well share my anger if Congress tells engineers from the Department of Education to run the train. They tried that in K-12 education and I’m not sure whether the results are a disaster or a joke. The best defense is clearly to get out ahead and do assessment right, and do it now.

This top down pressure for assessment  naturally provokes skepticism and resistance, especially from faculty members. What happens if we can reverse the direction and look at assessment from the ground up? Let me tell you a story. When the Teagle Foundation  began to ask whether it should undertake some initiative in the assessment area, we convened one of our “Listenings,” bringing together for a few days faculty, administrators and experts in assessment to advise us. There was plenty of skepticism and some hostility. I began to think maybe this was not such a good idea. 

But late in the gathering, two people stood up to speak from the floor. One said in effect, “As scholars we value knowledge. How as teachers can we reject something that might let us know more about our students’ learning?” Another speaker said, “Maybe we can teach better  if we know more. It’s worth a try.” For me, and for others at that session, that turned the day. Now the Teagle Foundation has made faculty-led, ground-up assessment one of its top priorities. Nothing, I believe, has greater potential for invigorating student learning in the liberal arts.

All this is built around one essential point: We can teach better and students can learn better if their learning is systematically and appropriately assessed.

3. The third trend is the one that makes me confident that we have nothing to fear from properly crafted assessment. Today we know far more about how students learn and what works in teaching that we did just a few years ago. We know what works -- first year seminars, inclusion of undergraduates in research projects, problem-based learning, collaborative projects, coordination of service learning, internships and overseas study with courses and curricula, lots of writing and speaking opportunities with prompt and thorough faculty feedback, capstone experiences in the senior year and so on. (See Section Six of Liberal Education Outcomes, a 2005 publication from the Association of American Colleges and Universities).

These are not just bright ideas from educational theorists. They have been tested and usually rigorously evaluated. And although graduate schools keep it a well hidden secret, the cat is now out of the bag.  This new knowledge has been drawn together, concisely summarized, and made easily accessible in Derek Bok’s brand new book, Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton Press 2006). Every professor should read this book: Its greatest merit is that Bok demolishes the excuses we academics have used to avoid change.

Let me give one example. My friend David Porter, former president of Skidmore College and now a classics professor at Williams College, defines a liberal education as “what you have learned once you have forgotten the facts.” How long would you guess it takes to forget those facts?   

Bok has the answer: “… [T]the average student will be unable to recall most of the factual content of a typical lecture within fifteen minutes after the end of class.  In contrast, interests, values and cognitive skills are all likely to last longer, as are concepts and knowledge that students have acquired  …  through their own mental efforts.”

Fifteen minutes! You might say, “We’ve known that, more or less,  for a long time.” Then why is lecturing still the dominant mode of instruction in so many settings? Bok offers several answers, the most damaging of which is complacency. He points out, for example, that one poll of faculty members found that 90 percent thought they were “above average” teachers. Welcome to Lake Wobegon.

Can these three trends -- cognitive capacities replacing content, accountability, the new knowledge base for college teaching -- come  together and reinforce one another? The key question is whether academic leaders will focus on this and make it happen. 

Imagine what such convergence can do for an institution that sets clear, assessable goals for itself in the development of its students’ cognitive capacities. It doesn’t matter whether the institution is multibillionaire Harvard or a struggling college far from the River Charles: There’s no group of college students whose frontal lobes won’t benefit from some additional exercise.

The institution that I am imagining does some testing to establish a base line and then looks at every aspect of student learning to see how each part can contribute to those goals. It finds out what its students need and what the Big Questions of value and meaning are that can invigorate their engagement with liberal education. It uses the new knowledge base to change some of its practices and try out new ideas. It searches appropriate means of assessment; if  NSSE, the National Survey of Student Engagement, or CLA, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, don’t seem quite right for its setting, there are others or, if need be, the institution develops its own. 

But whatever means of assessment it chooses, it doesn’t let the results sit in the office of Institutional Research; it uses them in an iterative process, steadily ratcheting up its effectiveness. The students see this; they understand better why they are studying what might otherwise seem remote or irrelevant material. Their enthusiasm increases; they tell their friends and younger siblings. The director of admissions smiles somewhat more often. So do the fund raisers. The alumni and friends of the institution see what is happening; their pride makes them more generous to alma mater. Maybe eventually even U.S. News sees that something is happening, and it is not prestige, pecking order, or wealth. It’s called “student learning.”

This systematic, iterative process of change will do a lot for an institution, for its students and for its faculty. I bet it will make hedgehogs out of them -- focused on, excited by, renewed through their concern for student learning. Most of us went into college teaching  for complex reasons, but one of them, I believe, was that we knew it would be a joy to help young people develop their mental capacities. It’s easy to forget that as we get older, to wander away, to end up forgetting that we  have something to profess. But the satisfaction is waiting there where we suspected it was when we started -- in helping those students learn and grow. 

Now, thanks to this convergence of changes, we can rediscover that satisfaction. We can teach better and students can learn better. That should make hedgehog very happy indeed.

I hear someone muttering: “Not on my campus; my faculty will never buy into that kind of change.”  Don’t be so sure. In my old job at the National Humanities Center, when we were developing programs to let new knowledge in the humanistic disciplines invigorate K-12 and college teaching, Richard Schramm, the talented designer of those programs, told me that he could not recall ever being turned down by an NHC fellow or former fellow when he asked them to help with this work. (For one such program see )  That matches what we are finding at the Teagle Foundation in developing our new College Community Connections program.

Scholars of great distinction have been willing to roll up their sleeves, and pitch in working with kids on disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York, where public schools are often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. These busy, much sought after academics were, I concluded, looking for something fresh, well designed, and capable of renewing their satisfaction in helping students learn.  You may find that some of your colleagues are hungry and thirsty for renewal of this sort and that they are ready to try out new ways of invigorating student learning.

Every environment is different, but here’s a suggestion about how one might build momentum and consensus. Try this on your campus. Get your dean to call Princeton Press and order copies of Derek Bok’s book Underachieving Colleges for every departmental chair. Ask them to read it and discuss it with their colleagues and then to meet with you and let you know what the response is. If 413 pages or $29.95 is too much for already strained attention spans or budgets, print out a copy of this article and ask your faculty colleagues whether they agree or disagree. Let them rip it apart. Let them be as prickly as … as prickly as hedgehogs. They may well have a better idea than any of these. The important thing is to focus on that one crucial idea: We can teach better and students can learn better. The only question is How?, and the only way to answer is by being hedgehogs focused on that one crucial thing, improving student learning.

Author/s: 
W. Robert Connor
Author's email: 

W. Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation. This essay was adapted from a speech given to the American Conference of Academic Deans in January.

The Value of Commission Reports

The primary value of federal commission reports on higher education is that they provoke an extensive discussion of almost everything. From angry complaints about cost and performance to deep philosophical discussions about purpose and methods, the blogs, testimony and discussion provide a common forum for our collective angst about college in America, highlighting the constant American dilemma of higher education as a business or a calling. This issue, illustrated by a helpful commentary  recently on Inside Higher Ed, deserves more exploration that we usually provide.

Although most of us who do higher education as a profession see ourselves involved in a calling with a higher purpose than mere commerce, our ability to exercise our professional skills depends entirely on the operation of a complex, highly competitive, and remarkable diversified business environment. Universities and colleges do what all business enterprises in America do: They sell services and goods to consumers, earning the money to pay for the continued production of those services and goods. If they fail to provide high enough quality goods and services to enough consumers, they will lack the revenue to operate the business, and the college will fail. This is true whether the educational governance or ownership is public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit. These business enterprises must serve their customers and earn revenue or they will fail. They cannot seek a higher plane of existence without finding a market for their services.

What then of public purpose? The notion of public purpose is simply another way to describe a category of consumers of higher education services. Public purpose exists when the public, through the subsidy mechanisms of state and federal government, purchases some higher education services. When the legislature of a state or Congress makes the purchasing decisions it does so as consumers of higher education services. Governments, like parents and students, have specific purposes in mind when they purchase higher education services, purposes that may not be the same as those of parents and students. While we may choose to believe that the tax-based purchase of higher education is of a higher order than the individual consumer based purchase, the institutions themselves compete in both market niches to acquire the revenue needed to pay their employees and continue operations.

Over the last generation, as higher education has shifted from a luxury purchase for some citizens to a commodity purchase for a large percentage of citizens, the intense competition for these new consumers challenged the business models for many public and private institutions. The states, faced with rapidly escalating costs for social services and other high priority entitlements and resistance to tax increases, have been unable to increase their higher education purchases to meet a rising public demand. This leaves the direct consumers -- parents and students -- paying more for educational services.  As the parents and students pay more, the institutions become more sensitive to the market place the parents represent. Institutional success comes from generating enough revenue to sustain itself and, if possible, to create a surplus to invest in quality improvements that will make it more competitive.  

The key constraint in this business model, which differentiates it from the industrial models such as big steel or the highly consolidated industries such as banking, is that higher education is a profoundly individualized service. Higher education does not create a product in the traditional sense. Almost everything we provide in the way of educational content or product is available in your local library or on the Internet. The content is not the product; the service of faculty and staff to individual students, is the business of higher education. However, this is an interactive service that requires the participation of the direct consumer (the student) to achieve its result. While universities and colleges provide a rather standardized service (the four-year degree model regulated by accreditation agencies), the actual service delivered to each student depends on what the student wants, what the student does, and what the student brings to the process.  

In the abstract, we may want students to read more, study harder, spend less time on extracurricular activities and more on writing. But when the students pay for a large part of the cost of the services, when the competition for customers is fierce, and when the public subsidy for all institutions, public or private, declines, there can be no other response than to adjust to customer expectations.

The corrective for excess responsiveness to student wishes is, of course, the multiple consumers who contribute to the purchase of every student’s education. While students may all want to earn 4.0’s, attend classes for a minimum amount of time, and write hardly at all, their parents (who pay some part), the public (which subsidizes some part), and the employers (who validate the utility of the education) all exert their influence on the process to achieve an outcome that reflects what the market place, taken together, wants from college.

When national crisis commissions convene periodically, they almost always represent the different perspectives of parents, employers, students, and the many quite different parts of the academic market place.  When they try to make concise, national and effective policy statements about higher education, they usually find themselves speaking only to parts of the problem, or they propose sweeping generalizations that for all the drama of high rhetoric fail to adequately engage to the multiple issues that affect the many different aspects of the higher education market place.

The higher education environment in the United States appears somewhat chaotic, uncontrolled or out of control in the eyes of many, but in truth it actually functions as well as any other alternative we can imagine. Overseas competitors with highly centralized and controlled higher education bureaucracies find themselves struggling to introduce market competitive systems to make their institutions competitive on a global basis, recognizing that centralized subsidization and control of higher education produces consistency at a high cost and relatively low productivity.  

The American model has the peculiarity that it permits anyone to attempt higher education at some level and in some place. The commitment to opportunity pushes the competency filter to the educational institution, where in other countries the filter takes place much earlier in the process, and eventually to postgraduation testing (for professional programs) or employment criteria in various industries. This commitment to preserving opportunity creates the highly varied nature of higher education in America.  This commitment requires low completion rates in many institutions as open opportunity meets the requirements of academic performance. This commitment creates a market for institutions producing graduates of considerably different preparation levels, leading to postgraduation tests such as the GRE, the MCAT, the LSAT, and various professional examinations to determine specific levels of competency for various purposes.  

If we recognize that the business model for American higher education is a service business that serves students individually because it requires their engagement to produce the desired result; that higher education in America is an open opportunity industry that finds a place for every willing student however well or poorly prepared or capable; that higher education in this country competes for customers in every public and private market place available; then we can better understand how to improve the operation of the many different parts of what we call higher education without damaging this basic model, with all of its benefits.

We can provide better data, externally audited and verified, on aspects of our performance to help individual and public consumers of our services understand what we do. We can price our services to students and to public consumers (legislatures) clearly, eliminating the complex discounting mechanisms that breed suspicion of discrimination and manipulation. We can better define the multiple outcomes expected from a student’s purchase of our services, for there is no longer any such thing as a “college education” but multiple outcomes related to majors in the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and the professions.

We cannot become a single, unified, and homogeneous government controlled national public service. We cannot apply a single standard of performance to all postsecondary institutions. We cannot accept lowest common denominator tests of reading, writing and thinking as the national standard of collegiate academic achievement. We should do things that enhance the effectiveness of each different part of higher education, recognizing that what we can do in one part of the market place will have no benefit in other parts. This approach requires careful attention to purpose, clear articulation of the measures of success, and accurate data to reflect performance in achieving the purpose.

The message of these periodic crisis commissions, a common fixture of American higher education, is that we have a great reluctance to speak clearly about the highly differentiated nature of this industry and the wide, and appropriate, variations in services and outcomes that can and should be expected of the various market segments.

As is usual in such conversations, we have met the challenge and it is us.

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
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Virtues and Vices of 'Value Added'

Many people think they know what we should produce with the process we call a college education.  Unfortunately, they don’t agree with each other, so the topic of measuring college success provides an endless opportunity for self-assured clarity about what is not at all clear.  The current occasion for the revival of this topic, which has had various other high and low points on the national accountability agenda, comes from the Spellings commission’s discussion and draft reports that call for colleges and universities to tell their customers the college will produce for students.

This seemingly reasonable request is like most high level educational principles: dramatic and simple in general and remarkably complicated and difficult in specific. Let’s look at some of the complications.

The product of a college degree is, of course, the student. Many want to assure parents and other customers that their students will emerge from the process of higher education with a specific level of skills and abilities. Recognizing the difficulty and expense of enforcing exit testing on all students, some propose to test a sample of students and infer from the results an achievement score for the institution that customers can then compare with the scores from other institutions. Leaving aside for the moment the touchy question of exactly what we want the students to know, testing that produces a raw institutional score is not likely to work very well by itself.  

Everyone knows that smart, well prepared freshmen usually end up as smart well prepared graduating seniors. If students test well entering the institution they are very likely to test well exiting the institution. Our egalitarian spirit worries that institutions whose students are less smart and less well prepared will necessarily score low on these exit tests in comparison to elite institutions with very well prepared students. Every institution that works hard to improve their students’ abilities should get a good score because the idea of improvement inspires everyone. A method to ensure that every institution, whatever the initial quality of its students’ preparation can score well on a national scale goes by the term “value added.”

Value-added methods attempt to measure the ability and preparation of students when they enter the institution, measure the ability and achievement of the students as they leave the institution, and then calculate an improvement score. Value added ascribes the improvement score to the wisdom and dedication of the institution (even if the achievement is actually the students’).  

A value-added score, calculated using the same methodology for all higher education institutions in America, would enable an institution with limited resources that admits students with very poor high school records and very low SAT scores but graduates students who have pretty good GRE scores (as an example of an exit exam) to get a 100% score because the improvement or value-added is large.  Colleges with superb facilities and resources that admit students with very high SAT scores and very fine high school preparation and graduate students with very good GRE scores could get a 50%  score because the improvement measured by the tests would be modest (from terrific coming in to terrific going out).  Then, in the national rankings, the first institution could claim to be a much better institution for improvement than the second one.

This discourse fools no one and would actually tell consumers that the institution they want their students to enroll in is the one that has high scores going in and high scores going out rather than the one that has low scores going in and medium scores going out.  What matters, as everyone knows, is the score leaving the institution.  

This approach also has the perverse effect of devaluing actual accomplishment and ability in favor of improvement.  It implies that a student is doing just as well at an institution that graduates at the middle level of accomplishment (but with lots of improvement) as the student would do at an institution that graduates at the top level of accomplishment (but with less improvement).  

It does the employer and the student no good to know that the student attended an institution that produces middle level performance from very poor preparation.  The employer wants a graduate who has high performance, high skills, high levels of knowledge and ability.  The employer is likely less interested in knowing that the student had to work hard to be a middle level performer and more interested in hiring someone with a high level of performance.

If we measure value added (by whatever means), we have to create a test for the end point: what the graduating student knows about the specific subjects studied, about the specific major completed.  When we test for what the student knows about the substance of the various fields of study, on some national scale, then we will have a marker for achievement. Once we have this marker for achievement, no one will care much about the marker at the entry level. Everyone will want their student to be in an institution whose scores demonstrate high levels of graduating achievement. It may give struggling institutions a sense of accomplishment to move students from awful preparation to modest achievement, but it will not change the competitive nature of the marketplace nor will it reduce the incentive to get the very best students who will, even if they don’t improve at all, score high on exit exams.

In this discussion, as is true in all efforts to measure institutional quality and performance, nothing is simple and no single number or measure will achieve that national reference point for total college achievement. College, as so many of us repeat over and over, is a complicated experience. There is no standardized college experience.

What we have is a relatively standardized curriculum and time frame. We have a four to five year actual or virtual educational process for students pursuing a traditional four-year baccalaureate degree, we have a general education requirement and a major requirement, and we have a host of extra or enhanced optional or required experiences for students. Within these large categories, the experience of students, the learning of students, and the engagement of students varies dramatically from discipline to discipline within institutions as well as between institutions.

Much of the emphasis on accountability measurement has as its premise the highly destructive goal of homogenizing the content and process of American higher education so that all students have the same experience and the same process. This centralizing drive comforts regulators, but it does not reflect the reality of the marketplace. As we have emphasized before, the American commitment to universal access to higher education requires a high level of variability in institutions, in the educational process, and in the outcomes. We do need good data from our institutions about what they do and what success their graduates have, but we do not need elaborate, centralized, homogeneity enforced by an ever more intrusive regulatory apparatus.

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 

Grasping the Reins of Reality

Look around you. Virtually everyone in the room is engaged in a job different from the one they prepared for in college.

This tells a story of a process that transcends content and curriculum, a process that goes beyond training, to the point where education actually took place. You and your colleagues underwent a transformation in the 1,800 or so hours you spent in the classroom interacting with your peers and with 40 or so faculty members at one level or another. You emerged from college having developed the ability to listen, to assimilate, to learn on your own, to project your own insights, opinions and views.

Some faculty members taught you how to think, how to challenge, to have confidence and to be independent. Most of you acquired the ability to analyze and to synthesize. Many acquired a love of learning for its own sake. You found faculty members with a wide variety of skills and goals; some tried to teach you content, as well as discernment. Others projected a point of view and welcomed a contrary view, if well supported.

In all this time, you also acquired knowledge, most of which is long gone. But you are still a different person from the high school graduate who entered college as a freshman. You learned how to read analytically and critically, you began to appreciate the role of originality and creativity. You know how to formulate and defend a hypothesis. And you learned how to assimilate the ideas of others and to interact, whether to support or to disagree.

There is so much else that you acquired, and when you graduated it was not just because you passed a number of courses. The structure, the faculty, the ever more demanding senior courses, the coherence of your major, and the qualities of mind, marked you as a successful outcome.

You are the reason the colleges are proud of what they do and your accomplishments represent the performance that colleges and universities point to in developing and justifying their reputation. Reputations are not developed in a vacuum. You, your parents, your children, your colleagues and your peers are the living remnants of the college experience. Your success justifies the massive resources poured by private Americans into supporting colleges and universities. And your success validates the vocation that characterizes the role of so many faculty members.

There is something special about American higher education, which continues to produce some of the world's greatest scientists and engineers, thinkers and scholars. There is something unique in the education we offer, which provides a breadth, an intellectual depth to accompany the skills and aptitudes of the specialist. And there are the human successes in sectors whose mission is to produce an involved, thinking citizenry.

Not everyone agrees that American higher education is characterized by success. Numbers are quoted indicating that the quality of graduates is not what it used to be. But they forget that sometimes the numbers go down as the numbers go up. As American higher education welcomes people less prepared, less gifted and often less motivated, as the atmosphere at some colleges becomes less rarified by the proliferation of remedial education, the average accomplishment will go down.

Nonetheless they insist it is time to measure learning outcomes. We are to select slices of the educational experience -- those slices that can be measured -- and somehow draw conclusions about all learning. Unfortunately, that which can be measured usually excludes the most important characteristics of a person's education. Depending on the consequences of these measurements, colleges will teach to the test and so, too, will faculty. Everyone wants to succeed, and if success is going to be defined by those outside academe, it is learning and teaching that will feel the pain first. In the end all of society will suffer.

Tragically, the intellectual immersion, which you yourselves recognized as characteristic of the totality of your undergraduate experience, will be compromised. That will happen precisely at the time when young people from emerging communities arrive at the gates of our colleges and universities, desperately needing this kind of intellectual immersion.

In the end, higher education has responded to the call for broad measures of learning outcomes. Several national organizations have committed to encouraging member institutions to experiment in this direction. But we must remember we are talking about experiments. These efforts must remain pilot projects subject to validation carried out within academe. We must further insist that the use of such measures be based on inherent value, rather than governmental mandate.

Government has heard from all the others; it is time to hear from us. From you.

Author/s: 
Bernard Fryshman
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Bernard Fryshman is executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools’ Accreditation Commission.

Regulating the New Consumerism

One of the themes in the much commented on report of the Spellings Commission highlights the need to fully inform higher education consumers about everything. For some, accountability not only means being responsible about teaching and research, but also delivering some form of full disclosure. This trend reflects the continued move of higher education from a specialized product sold to well-informed customers to a generic product sold in widely varying formats to large numbers of often unsophisticated consumers. 

As is usually the case with high profile commissions, this one responds to a mature trend, not something new and different. The proliferation of rankings and ratings of every conceivable type is the clearer example of the commodity college degree, but the commission, because it speaks for at least one part of the government, has a coercive capacity where the ratings have only a demonstrative capacity.

What, then, is the full consumer information we need? Much current university and college published data is actually not very helpful. As a normal practice, we produce measures of central tendency -- averages or means -- or we provide ratios of one kind or another. So we talk about average class size or average student/faculty ratios; average discount rate on tuition and fees; and the average financial aid package or the average debt on graduation. Universities and colleges provide information on the average endowment or average state investment per student.

All of these, and many others, provide an average representation of the reality of campus life. If universities and colleges managed, as do other high tech, high quality enterprises, by reducing the variation around the mean to produce a homogeneous product, these average numbers might have some usefulness. That’s not how higher education works.

Instead, colleges and especially large public universities manage in ways that appear to maximize the variation they can sustain in the quality and diversity of their students.  They admit students with SAT scores ranging from 900 to 1600 perhaps, students whose parents have no taxable income and those whose income reaches above six or seven figures. They admit students who are the fourth generation of college attendees and the children of migrant workers whose home experience includes no prior engagement with higher education. Universities pride themselves on the wide diversity in the ethnicity and economic capability of their students and they speak eloquently of the wide range of socioeconomic circumstance from which their students come. 

This is all to the good, but it illustrates why the average numbers we often discuss as the tokens of accountability disguise more often than they inform.  Instead of average class size, we might display the percentage of students in classes under 25, 26 to 50, 51 to 100, and over 100. Even that is not as helpful, for example, as providing a transcript analysis of the graduating class. The aggregate measures that tell us how many classes are under 50 students tells us how the faculty teach, but not what individual students take. Students in engineering may have mostly classes smaller than 50 while students in humanities or social sciences may have mostly classes larger than 100. We may find that 30 percent of our graduating students never took a class under 50 even though such classes were available. Knowing what kinds of class contexts are available is a helpful overall indicator, but it does not tell the interested consumer what students actually choose to do or are advised to do.

We call for better information on the cost of college. By this, we mean both the “costs” of what colleges spend on providing an education and the “price” that students pay for that education. The latter is a very slippery number. Everyone knows that there is a sticker price and a discounted price. Everyone knows that students receive discounts for various reasons.

What we do not provide very often are data that describe the characteristics of students who receive discounts and reveal the relationship between particular characteristics and the discounts the institution provides. For example, we do not know the relationship between the marker for merit (SAT, GPA) and the amount of merit aid provided (for those institutions that provide merit aid).  If we did, we might find that not all students with a 1350 SAT will get the same merit aid package. 

Almost all institutions provide a wide range of need based aid, some from federal or state sources that are regulated and some from institutional sources that are not.  Institutions create need based packages to achieve enrollment goals, and sometimes following a formula based on the federal guidelines and sometimes using ad hoc packaging to achieve balance in our student populations. This is especially so when institutions are under clear directions from their boards to change the composition of the student body in some way, for example to prefer legacies or first generation students, or to increase the percentage of men or women.

Student debt is a mystery number because the data on average debt deal with only a fraction of the student population. Average debt refers to the average institutionally managed debt of those graduating seniors who have debt. So it does not tell us about the debt of those students who in addition to institutionally managed debt have private debt from a local bank, from credit cards, or from other sources. It also does not tell us about those students who do not qualify for any institutionally managed loans but nonetheless borrow money from local banks, credit cards, and other sources. Nor does it tell us how much of the debt students contract is required by the formal cost of attendance and how much responds to lifestyle issues related to housing, transportation, illness, family obligations, and entertainment among other issues.

In the real world of higher education -- rather than the idealized world of commissions and homogenizing government regulations -- higher education institutions, while they produce a standardized product, do so for widely varying market niches made up of customers with widely varying characteristics.

Many of the proposed measures that we see coming from commissions and regulators speak to some mythical average student experience, usually reflecting the idealized type of the elite private four-year college. As such they may satisfy some, but will surely fail to provide more accurate information to individual consumers.  How, we might ask, am I to know whether my child is average and therefore likely to have the average experience the data highlight?  How many of the graduates actually participated in the average experience, or did most of them pass through the institution at the upper or lower edges of the experience represented by the calculated average?

Most university people also know that any significantly useful data will be used against them. If the data are specific and clear, and if they demonstrate differences among universities and colleges, bitter experience teaches that the regulators will praise those whose indicators are high and condemn those whose indicators are low, without paying the slightest attention to purpose, organization, circumstance, or mission of the institutions involved. 

In our world, “high” means most like a private elite liberal arts college. “Low” means most unlike these colleges. The regulators, whether accreditation agencies, higher education commissions, public boards of trustees, state regulators, or national agencies, will acknowledge that the institutions differ dramatically, but they will then proceed to compare unlike institutions in statistical grids using the already not very good measures.

Worse yet, the commercial ranking services, once delivered this treasure trove of numbers that bear the imprimatur of regulatory agencies, will construct increasingly convoluted and methodologically flawed rankings, cloaked with regulatory authority, conveniently forgetting the caveats about the data contained in obscure footnotes in the government reports.

Almost every university and college works to get better, driven by the inexorable pressure of competition for faculty, students, funding and prestige. The market place in higher education is exceptionally wide and contains every imaginable modality. The irony of these periodic bursts of regulatory enthusiasm is that the conservative, free-market political enterprise appears most eager to see this educational free market socialized into government mandated homogeneity, often based on simple, one dimensional measures. 

Colleges and universities can respond either by resisting all notions of measurement or, more appropriately, by developing and publicizing the detailed, data based measurements that will actually give their many constituencies a clear guide to the complexity and range of the institution’s activities. This is harder than fighting over simple-minded measures, but it surely the right thing to do.

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 

What Spellings Got Right and Wrong

Last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings laid out a promising agenda to keep our colleges and universities strong in this demanding age. As she rightly noted in her comments on the report of Commission on the Future of Higher Education, America's public and private institutions of higher education are the envy of the world. 

But as we work to deal with the immense challenges of this rapidly changing time, it’s vital for our colleges and universities -- fine as they now are -- to be open to change, and Congress, the Department of Education, and the higher education community will need to work well together to find the way forward.

The commission and the Secretary are right to call attention to the nation’s unfinished business on college access, affordability, and accountability. It's unacceptable that the average student now graduates with $17,500 in student loan debt, 73 percent of all colleges still find it necessary to offer remedial classes for entering students, and that only 15 percent of African American students and 10 percent of Latino students obtain bachelor's  degrees today, compared to 30 percent of white students.

As many have said, the Commission’s best recommendation is for an increase in the Pell Grant, so that the average award will cover 70 percent of the typical tuition at a four-year public college, compared to only 44 percent of the cost today. Unfortunately, Secretary Spellings backed away from that specific recommendation in her remarks, calling instead only for an “increase” in need-based grant aid. For the past four years, the maximum Pell Grant has been frozen at $4,050 a year, contributing to the crushing debt that burdens so many today. As a result, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance estimates that up to 2.4 million qualified students will fail to obtain bachelor's degrees this decade because of financial barriers.

It’s also disappointing that neither the commission nor the Secretary went further to discuss needed reforms of the federal student loan programs, which provide over $60 billion a year to support students’ postsecondary education -- more than any other source. During the commission's deliberations, Chairman Charles Miller said he wanted to "avoid getting bogged down" in specific discussions about these complicated programs. The commission’s report, which issues a broad call for the entire student financial aid system to be restructured, reflects that.

Had the commission peeled back the layers, it would have quickly uncovered the many details of federal student loan programs that bedevil students and families every day in their struggle to pay for college. The government squanders billions of education dollars each year to guarantee that private lenders bear virtually no risk when they make loans. It rewards lenders more for collecting on defaulted loans than for keeping borrowers in good standing. It inexplicably favors subsidies for private lenders, instead of the government’s own far less expensive Direct Loan program.

Obvious reforms could make the current dysfunctional student loan system far more effective. We could generate $13 billion in new Pell Grants over the next 10 years simply by allowing fair competition between the privately funded loan programs and the Direct Loan program. We could expand income-contingent repayment for student loans, so that borrowers would not have to allocate more than 15 percent of their monthly income to loan re-payments. We could grant loan forgiveness after 10 years to those in public service professions such as teaching, public health, and law enforcement. No debate about the future of higher education can move forward effectively without addressing this urgent problem. It's time to throw the money lenders out of the temple of higher education.  

It's also time to give higher priority to community colleges. They now enroll 45 percent of all undergraduates, but they’re frequently an afterthought in discussions of education policy and funding.  Community colleges do more to promote college access and equity than any other aspect of higher education. More is  demanded of them as well -- from educating first-time,  low-income, and immigrant students to educating adults seeking new careers and workers seeking better skills for their current jobs.

Community colleges received little mention in the commission’s report or the Secretary's speech, but many of their recommendations are directly applicable to two-year programs.  In Massachusetts, for example, community colleges work directly with high schools to align the school curriculum to college-level work. They help underprepared and nontraditional students advance to college. Through their links to area Workforce Investment Boards and regional development, they advance the commission’s recommendation that higher education do more to promote career pathways for students.

Implementing these recommendations may be easy -- but moving forward with others will be difficult, such as the commission's call for colleges to measure student learning through standardized assessments. In addition, many states -- including Massachusetts -- have developed databases to track students'  progress through higher education, but significant questions exist about creating a national database. Obviously, these ideas  require serious study and discussion involving both the higher education community and Congress.

Sixty years ago, our country and our higher education system stood at a similar crossroads. Hundreds of thousands of G.I.’s had returned home from World War II, eager for new skills, new opportunities, and their chance for the American Dream. The Cold War presented a frontal challenge to our place in the world. In response, President Harry Truman appointed the nation’s first Commission on Higher Education, an unprecedented effort that brought an end to racial discrimination in college admissions, built on the success of the G.I. Bill by enacting new grant and scholarship programs for students, and spurred the rigorous development of our community colleges.

With that same kind of vision today, we can use our remarkable system of higher education to help turn this era of globalization into a new era of opportunity for America. Secretary Spellings and her commission deserve our gratitude for launching this dialogue.  Now it’s up to all of us to chart the rest of the path.

Author/s: 
Edward M. Kennedy
Author's email: 

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Counterpoint: Lenders Respond

The final report of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, released late last month, is already generating a strong debate, including a column by Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

The Spellings commission and Senator Kennedy are right about the need for increased federal support for higher education.  Achieving “a higher education system that is accessible to all qualified students in all life stages,” a Commission goal we all share, will require new and significant federal investments in both need-based grant aid and low-cost student loans.

The reasons are largely demographic. The largest secondary school classes in history are graduating over the next few years. Equally important, the growing diversity of secondary school graduates creates challenges; there are cultural and information barriers that need to be addressed.   

Senator Kennedy is correct in pointing out that the federal student loan programs are the single largest source of financial aid, making them an essential component of any plan to increase the accessibility and affordability of postsecondary education.

So while America’s Student Loan Providers agrees that “every student in the nation should have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education,” we do not believe that this shared policy goal can or should be achieved by eliminating the guaranteed loan program, as the senator suggests. This would jeopardize the fulfillment of educational goals for the millions of students and 6,000 colleges, universities and technical schools that rely on guaranteed loans. 

Such a one-size-fits-all government solution wouldn’t be good for students, parents or schools.  Nor is it good policy.  

Indeed, it is the public-private partnership of the guaranteed loan program that will make $56 billion available to nearly 7 million students and parents this year alone.

Equally troubling is the assertion that the program is without risk to lenders and other guaranteed student loan participants and that it somehow encourages students to default on their loans. When a student is unable to repay his or her loans and goes into default, it harms the student, the lender, and the taxpayer. That’s why student loan providers have implemented innovative strategies to assist borrowers in understanding and meeting their repayment obligations, and that’s why student loan default rates today remain near the lowest level in history.  

Finally, it is widely recognized that the federal methodology used to calculate program costs overstates the cost of the guaranteed loan program and understates the cost of the direct loan program. Other analyses conclude that costs of the two programs are either virtually identical or that the guaranteed loan program is less expensive. The point is that major decisions about the future of the loan program that millions of students depend on shouldn’t be based solely on questionable cost assumptions.

For 41 years, the guaranteed loan program has helped make postsecondary education possible for millions of Americans. One of the original Great Society programs, it has been hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s one reason why a 2000 Brookings Institution study called increased access to postsecondary education one of the federal government’s most significant accomplishments.

Clearly, this is one government program that is deserving of support.  We welcome the opportunity to work with the Congress and administration for the benefit of those seeking educational advancement.

Author/s: 
Kevin Bruns
Author's email: 

Kevin Bruns is executive director of America's Student Loan Providers.

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