What Should the U.S. Commission Do?

Academe's rank and file join policy experts in offering advice to the new national panel on higher ed's future. Please weigh in...

September 21, 2005

On Monday, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced the creation of a national Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She said the panel would help develop a "comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education," exploring such issues as access, affordability, and higher education's role in reversing America's declining competitiveness in the world economy.

Like most such commissions, this one is dominated by leaders and policy makers, with relatively little representation from rank and file professors and college staff members or from students who represent the front line consumers of higher education.

The panel is undoubtedly going to hear from some of those people during the series of public meetings it plans to hold beginning October 17, but Inside Higher Ed invited a wide range of people from across the higher education spectrum to offer some initial suggestions on issues the commission should explore, approaches it might take, and perspectives it ought to include.

We'd encourage you to add your own ideas to those below, by clicking on the comment button at the bottom of the article.

Abraham Lackman, president, New York State's Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities:

The problem I generally have with commissions is that they tend to focus on what's wrong with something without trying to say, Is it working? It is my belief, and I think is most folks' reckoning, that the higher education system in America is probably the best in the world. If you have something that's good, you build on its strengths. So the question for this commission should be "How do we make it stronger?," as opposed to "What's wrong with it?"

The second issue, and this is a perspective I bring from New York State, is that I have always seen federal involvement focus on the issue of access, whereas in the states, especially, governments are also looking at economic development. Colleges in the Northeast are increasingly looked at as tools to solve problems, particularly in the transition from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Is it time for the federal government to look more at colleges and universities as an asset in terms of economic development? There's a real role for the federal government in terms of equipment and capital for our universities, which I'd argue are just as important to the national infrastructure and economy going forward as roads and bridges and the transportation system.

Vicky Lepore, coordinator for library research, Lake City Community College (Fla.):

If this board is going to make a unique impact, they need some representation of students to stay grounded, to plant more world values and synergetic vision into our educational system, and break out of old problem-solving patterns. I would hope that the board includes some representation from our most outspoken critics of our educational system, too.

I don’t agree that the U.S. education system is "by far the leading system in the world." I think we lead in energy consumption, and entertainment, and adult illiteracy, but our values don’t reflect much about being responsible world citizens, much less how to compete in that world economy. Will the board’s purpose include translating our educational values and vision into producing students with a sense of responsibility and ethics for the world family?

Michael Offerman, president, Capella University:

It is difficult to know just what the Commission is going to deliberate since we have so little information at this point. But it seems obvious that the last thing any of us want to see is more regulation or unfunded mandates. 

That said, it would be beneficial if the Commission could help to define a big picture policy agenda that fosters innovation and greater public understanding of the value of higher education for the individual and for society. It is especially important that consumers, employers and federal and state public policy makers understand the value of higher education. While it would be a mistake for the federal government to mandate specified outcomes for higher education institutions, it might be beneficial to outline a common platform for discussing educational outcomes in a way that the various constituencies can clearly understand and trust.

It might also be a beneficial if there was specific encouragement and support for innovation in higher education. The marketplace may drive competition and change in higher education, but the regulatory structures discourage institutional risk-taking and innovation. The structures complicate the creation and potential for success of new institutions with new missions or for new approaches within existing institutions.  That is not to say that innovation does not occur, but more innovation and change is necessary to provide access to new audiences, including minorities and adults.

Innovation and change are also necessary to turn around the fact that our country is losing its competitive edge in the global economy. Yet there are tremendous pressures to simply continue the status quo and to judge changes and innovations by how much the changes look like and produce the same outcomes as existing programs and organizations. Perhaps it is time for a new version of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education with a focus on things such as minority access and degree completion, increased delivery of science and math programs and access for adults learners who need to increase their knowledge and job skills. Perhaps there needs to be some formally recognized “safe space” within which institutions can innovate in the form of new approaches, new delivery modes and new pedagogy without putting their standing within the higher education community at risk... Perhaps The Washington Monthly College Guide is on the right track by creating  a ranking that considers societal impacts, asking "what colleges are doing for the country."

In the end, if we are going to have a Commission, it is my hope that that body avoid mandates and focus on stimulating new and innovative solutions for higher education to use in addressing major societal issues.

Luke Swarthout, associate, State PIRGs Higher Education Project:

We think there are a plethora of questions to be addressed in higher education and are excited about the opportunity this commission provides to dig into broad as well as detailed questions. 

Broadly: What are the needs of our economy and our civil society and what role should higher education play in American society? What should be the goals for college attendance -- should we be working to aggressively increase the percentage of our citizens who attend college? How will we educate those students both from a logistical and pedagogical point of view?

Then how will we finance higher education, thinking about ensuring access for the millions of students entering college? How will we keep college affordable and how should higher education be financed? What responsibilities do the federal and state governments have to provide an affordable education? 

What place does student borrowing have in paying for college and how does loan debt affect access or affect the quality of a student’s education? Within the realm of financing alone there are questions of how to encourage state investment in higher education and how to find efficiencies within the student loan programs.

I should say that we are excited to work with the commission and hope that the absence of any student or consumer voice is not indicative of their lack of interest in addressing higher education from the student and consumer perspective.

Jonathan Brown, president, Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities

I am not sure I agree with the initial purpose of the group but a lot of that depends on how they conceive of themselves. The Economist just published one of its surveys that argued forcefully that the weakness of European higher education was its tendency to have a centralized focus and conversely the strength of the American system was its decentralization.

That being said, I think it is appropriate to have a distinguished group of people think about the future (and this is a pretty distinguished group). I know several of them and respect their work. There are also a couple who I disagree with from their writings about higher education -- but on the whole the group looks like a good one. Higher education's strength, IMHO, is in part reflected by what The Economist recently said -- its diversity -- so I think the balance of their process should be to help all of higher education think about alternative futures without being too prescriptive.

Many blue sky activities like this often come up with conclusions that ignore basic trends that are not well understood at the time (think Malthus and his complete lack of understanding of the effects of the steel plow) but to get higher education to begin to think about what comes next (in the words of H.G. Wells) is a good idea. David Warren, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities' president, argued about five years ago that several fundamental conceptions of higher education (a degree, a course, a student, and even a university) were undergoing fundamental redefinition. Challenging those of us in higher education to confront those changes and those stake holders to confront the same set of issues would be a good idea.

Kathryn Jones, executive director, Higher Education Alumni Council of Oklahoma:

I am always a little leery when an organization w/ heavy representation from the business community is formed to 'study' education. I can't recall a comparable committee composed primarily of educators to "study" business. The implication appears to be that since we haven't/can't/won't take care of problems, they'll do it for us.

My thoughts re: this task force are such:

  • What is Secretary Spellings' agenda?  Did she wake up one morning and say, "Let's have a panel to study higher education?"
  • It was said that "the federal government has every right to examine academe more closely." Are there not controls already in place to review financial aid policies, contracts, etc.?
  • Does she plan to get into the rankings' game?

Big Sister may be here.

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director, Cornell Higher Education Research Institute:

Perhaps the most important thing that I think the commission can do is to analyze how our current federal policies encourage states to reduce their support of their public higher education institutions and to raise tuition; doing so increases the level of Pell Grants that students in the state are eligible for and shifts the cost of public higher education in the state from taxpayers in the state to students and taxpayers in the nation as a whole.

As my friends Tom Kane and King Alexander have pointed out, federal policies should encourage states to spend more on their public higher education systems, not to spend less (In contrast, when states cut back their expenditures on Medicaid, they lose federal matching funds). Given the tremendous inequalities in enrollment and graduation rates between students from families in the lower tail of the family income distribution and students from other families, the commission also should consider what innovative federal policies would encourage higher education institutions to make extra efforts to enroll students from lower-income families and to provide the service these students need to succeed in higher education. An example of such a policy might be a program that provides grants to public and private higher education institutions for each Pell Grant recipient that they graduate.

Patricia Seleski, professor and chair of history, California State U. at San Marcos

While I heartily agree that both access (of all qualified students in general and of underrepresented students in particular) and cost are issues on which the commission should focus, they clearly aren't the only ones.

I will say in regards to access that here in the CSU it is constrained by our capacity to serve more students. In the past few years our ability to take on more students has not been a question of things like unwillingness to experiment with new technologies (we do) or to increase class size, or to schedule B.A. requirements at night and at other times convenient for non-traditional students -- it has almost totally been a factor of the institution, the system and the state's lack of willingness in creating new capacity at existing campuses. While the state has been most culpable in this regard, both the CSU system and the institution are also at fault. One thing that I doubt a commission of CEOs will explore, but should, is the thickening of the administrative layers on campuses over the years.

My other concern touches on the question of cost. Rather than focusing so much attention on cost -- how much it actually costs to put the product out -- more attention needs to paid to how students finance their college educations and the impacts that our students' large reliance on loans have on their individual futures and the future of the society in general. 
I know it is fruitless to suggest this, but the commission should largely stay away from spending a lot of time on defining standard outcomes or defining how these can/should be communicated to the public: They won't, but they should avoid this. 

Richard Ekman, president, Council of Independent Colleges:

If achieving better results from institutions of higher education is to be a major focus of the new commission, it will need to examine the practices of smaller private institutions. If the commission looks into the matter, it will likely be persuaded to advocate for all of American higher education many of the features that are commonly found in the smaller institutions. The amount of student engagement in learning, of cognitive growth, and postgraduate civic involvement are all greater, on average, for smaller private institutions than for other kinds of colleges and universities.
Small colleges also enroll and graduate low-income, minority, and first-generation students at higher rates than larger public institutions. And they utilize far less public money to produce these results than state-supported institutions do.
Yet most state and federal policies -- and the flow of public funds -- ignore these distinctions. We need public policies that reward institutional effectiveness and encourage more bang for the public buck.


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