Tough Love for Colleges

Federal higher ed panel emphasizes colleges' high prices and urges greater accountability.
December 9, 2005

The first meeting of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, in October, left many of those in attendance with the overwhelming impression that crafting consensus about the panel's direction would be difficult, given the great diversity of its members' interests and concerns and the wide variety in the views they expressed. 

Thursday's second meeting, in Nashville, revealed more consensus and gave some early indications of some of the panel's possible recommendations -- and it was a brutal few hours for college officials. David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, called it a "scorching critique," as  most of the speakers described the ways in which the American higher education system is failing, even as the group acknowledged that it remains "the best in the world."

The widely held view that American higher education is unparalleled may be a curse, suggested Charles Miller, the commission's chairman and former head of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, because of the "complacency" that may have set in among college leaders. 

Miller sought to shake that complacency from his very first statements at Thursday's meeting -- and he even got a head start on that. A profile of him that appeared in Thursday's edition of USA Today quoted Miller as calling it "highly probable" that the commission would recommend instituting some kind of national testing to measure college students' learning, along the lines of what's done in elementary and secondary education. 

In an interview after the panel's meeting Thursday, Miller said he didn't think he said that the commission would propose such testing -- but he stood by the general idea of testing students' critical thinking skills specifically and of greatly increased accountability for all aspects of colleges'  performance in general. "There's a tendency not to accept change unless you're in a crisis, and history shows that it almost always comes from outside," he said.

Miller's opening comments Thursday set a tone that carried through the afternoon session, the first part of a two-day meeting. "I am sensitive to the possibility that some of my language may sound critical, and some of it is," he said, adding that "we need to be able to understand and define the problems before we can suggest long-term strategy to accomplish what we need."

Acknowledging that his comments about the current state of higher education represented his "personal view" rather than the commission's, Miller emphasized the gap between what American citizens want from their colleges and universities and what they are getting. 

Access is becoming more difficult, he said; college prices "inexorably rise faster than other prices or incomes, as does the cost to "those asked to fund higher education: federal taxpayers, state taxpayers, employers, contributors and suppliers." Emphasis on research and other priorities make "teaching and learning almost incidental, and higher education "provides inadequate information in overly complex forms with little transparency about prices and costs or about many other key measures of value added or received." 

Bottom line, Miller said: "We are not getting what we want and need." 

Participants in the afternoon's first panel, "The State of Higher Education Today," continued in that vein. Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute for Education Services at the U.S. Education Department, used data from the agency and a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to lay out a statistical portrait that was not pretty.

The cost of a higher education in the United States is 250 percent higher than the average of industrialized nations, and 60 percent higher than Denmark, which ranks second. Yet the rate of postsecondary enrollment (academic or vocational) in the U.S. is 63 percent, below the average of 69 percent. (And the figures are much worse, he noted, for black and Hispanic Americans.)

"If we measure affordability by outcomes, then we have a problem," Whitehurst said. He suggested that a forthcoming report on adult education from his agency would reinforce that sense.

Peter Stokes, executive vice president of Eduventures, Inc., a research firm, emphasized the ways in which traditional higher education was failing to respond to changes in the world and urged the commission to strongly endorse distance education, push colleges to pay more attention to adult learners, and get more involved in corporate training, among other things. Higher education is a "mature industry not paying attention to the disruptive elements in the market," he warned.

Patrick Callan, whose organization, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, holds colleges accountable for a living, offered what he called the "sobering picture" that emerged from the latest version of Measuring Up, the group's report card on states' higher education performance. While it showed some gains in the preparation of students for college, the rates at which students attended and completed college were essentially flat over 10 years, while affordability declined. 

Amid the climate of criticism, members of the panel seemed to feel obliged to apologize when they offered more-positive assessments. "What I'm about to say is going to sound extremely defensive, extremely conservative," said Charles M. Vest, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as he challenged suggestions that reduced teaching responsibilities mean that professors are working less hard and that more corporate involvement in higher education would necessarily help.

Vest and another member of the commission, Robert Zemsky, chair and professor of the University of Pennsylvania's Learning Alliance for Higher Education, also urged the panel not to overemphasize the growth so far and the future promise of distance education, which they both said they supported in some forms. "It's not necessarily a highly efficient activity" for all colleges, said Vest. "It's not clear to me that we should necessarily change the traditional institutions to be the providers."

Amid the contention and criticism of higher education, some consensus began to emerge. Virtually everyone in the room agreed that colleges needed to do a better job of tracking (and revealing) the progress of students. That led to an overwhelming, if unofficial, endorsement of the idea of creating a national "unit records" system that would allow policy makers to see how individual students move through the education system, without which such tracking is impossible.

The Education Department proposed the idea last spring to a lukewarm reception by some college officials and outright disdain from Republicans in Congress who are worried about students' privacy because Social Security numbers would have been used; in an interview this summer, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, described the idea as "dead in the water."

But Nicholas Donofrio, the executive vice president for innovation and technology at IBM, who is on the commission, said Thursday that it would be possible to construct a records system that would create no privacy issues whatsoever. "There are other ways," said Donofrio. 

Amid much bashing of rankings by U.S. News & World Report, momentum also seemed to build on the panel for finding other ways to measure, and report to the public, on colleges' performance, particularly in the realm of finances and student "outcomes." How such reporting would unfold -- and whether it would be compelled, by making it contingent on the receipt of federal financial aid, for instance -- were questions left for another day, although Miller, the panel's chairman, said such requirements were not out of the question.

He bristled at a suggestion by one panel member that private institutions maintain a lot of data about their performance but don't like to share it, for competitive reasons. "To the extent private institutions don't want to provide that information because it's competitive," he said, there's another answer: "just don't take the money" from the government. He wasn't necessarily advocating that the government make federal aid contingent on such reporting, Miller said, but "it is a lever" that could be used.


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