Public Hearing, Take 2

U.S. higher ed panel’s second open meeting focuses on accessibility and colleges’ ability to train innovative thinkers.
March 21, 2006

With less than five months until the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education is set to release its final report to Secretary Margaret Spellings, this much is evident: Commissioners will have no lack of information, no shortage of opinions and no scarcity of student anecdotes from which to draw.

Spellings announced the creation of the panel last fall to confront a range of hot-button issues in academe. The commission held an open hearing last month in Seattle and heard commentary from a range of Pacific Northwest college leaders.

The commission’s second public hearing, which took place Monday in Boston, featured a panel of presidents from New England institutions and a host of public speakers, many of whom are enrolled at those colleges and universities.

The presidents almost uniformly urged the panel to give serious consideration to strengthening undergraduate science, technology and engineering education.

With the federal appropriations process in full swing and with the Bush administration’s proposed cuts in the 2007 budget for many education programs as a backdrop, much of the testimony focused on accessibility to higher education for students who rely on federal subsidies.

“Affordability is perhaps the most talked about, worried about and misunderstood topic in higher education policy circles today,” said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts. “That is not surprising given the wrenching dislocations in public funding of higher education that we experienced from 2002-2004.”

Wilson explained that over the last two decades, the Massachusetts government’s share of the cost of higher education has dropped from more than 40 percent to about 20 percent. He said he would like to see the state shoulder more of the burden, but isn’t counting on the reinvestment.

“I’m just a realist at looking at the budget,” said Wilson, adding that the university needs to target sure-fire investments such as technology initiatives.

Both Wilson and Dennis D. Berkey, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, called for a strengthening of universities’ roles in economic development. Commercializing intellectual property was a practice both used as an example. UMass also runs online academic classes that Wilson said has helped students in remote locations and generated revenue for the university.

Wilson urged the commission to reject price controls and, responding to a commissioner’s question, said a voucher system -- in which state governments would focus their higher education spending on aid to students instead of institutions -- would “destabilize the public education system.”

Wilson said his institution reluctantly raised tuition over the past few years, leading to student protests. He warned commissioners that they would be inundated with displeased students speaking to them during the afternoon public comment session.

And he was right. A parade of students shared their stories of financial concerns. Joshua Chaisson, a student at the University of Southern Maine, said that as a first-generation college student, he has paid for his entire education by taking out loans. “Students are entering the economy as a slave -- a slave to Sallie Mae,” said Chaisson, eliciting chuckles from the commissioners. “You laugh, but it’s true. I ask that the federal government and state take dual responsibility in supporting the affordability of education.”

A University of New Hampshire student, Scott Peach, added that considering historically lower-paying professions such as teaching or social work might be out of the question for students like him because of mounting debt.

Numerous speakers echoed a theme that is at the core of an American Council on Education-sponsored higher education media campaign.

“From the point of view of national economic competitiveness, higher education is less a private good than a national need and high priority,” Berkey, of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said.

That framed a lengthy discussion between panelists and commissioners on the state of grant aid. Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University, called for the commission to prioritize need-based financial ahead of merit-based aid in times of financial shortcomings.

“It is far from clear to me how society is better off when scarce financial aid resources are diverted from the neediest students to those who are not needy by any measure, simply to redistribute high scoring students among our institutions,” Bacow said. He asked the commission to consider experimenting with aid matching programs, similar to one recently announced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mary Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College, in Massachusetts, said low-income students are being pushed to the side when the budget calls for no increases in the maximum Pell Grant and the elimination of programs, like GEAR UP and some of the TRIO programs, that help underrepresented students learn about their college options. She recommended that eligibility for Academic Competitiveness Grants be extended to part-time students, as well.

Improving math and science instruction in both secondary and higher education was a hot topic during the morning session. Panelists urged the commission to fund college programs that make the United States more competitive globally, and to also provide funds to train cutting-edge learning tools in those disciplines.

Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, asked the commission to consider one question when making its recommendations to Spellings: “Will this foster educational innovation?”

She proceeded to answer her own question, saying that standardized courses of study and mandatory testing “would limit our ability to educate, to develop new curricula and to train the innovators we need.”

Robert Brown, president of Boston University, and Bacow both agreed with Hockfield’s sentiments on uniform testing policies, which commission leaders insist they are not considering.

Also discussed at the hearing:

  • Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering, an eight-year-old institution, promoted the idea of heavy student involvement in campus decision making (Students there are invited to serve on administrative committees and are involved in selection of new faculty during their interview process, for instance.).
  • Numerous speakers urged the commission to keep students with disabilities in mind when they make their proposals.
  • Speakers from the Anti-Defamation League said universities need to become more vigilant about reporting hate crimes.
  • Ron Bearse, chief operating officer at College Solutions Network, raised the idea of offering to students financial literacy courses.

Monday’s public hearing was the commission’s last. Its next regular meeting is April 6-7 in Indianapolis.


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