Consensus in Short Supply

Members of federal higher ed panel take aim at the big picture but get caught up in the definitions and details.
May 19, 2006

It was probably inevitable that on the first day that the members of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education sat down to start to build consensus, to identify areas of agreement and disagreement -- to talk turkey -- the results were not pretty. Interesting, frequently, but not pretty.

Try as they might to focus on ideas and the big picture, Thursday’s discussion at the Watergate Hotel in Washington often became ensnared in the details and definitions; the commissioners haggled for nearly a half hour, for instance, over whether the panel could say that higher education has become “unaffordable.” Agreement was generally hard to come by -- even on some broad ideas on which the commissioners seemed to have largely concurred before, such as encouraging governments and institutions to emphasize need-based aid over merit aid.

And even when they did concur – for example, on the notion that colleges and universities need to provide much more information about their performance to their multiple publics – there were caveats aplenty. “This is one of those cases where the devil’s in the detail,” said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. “No one’s uncomfortable with more and better public data. The question is, can we get it right?”

The commission’s chairman, Charles Miller, said after the session that he was not surprised or troubled by the fractured and fractious nature of the discussion about a subject that he called “complex and huge.” “This is a sticky, tricky time period,” he said. “There are no easy answers.”  

Fortunately for the commission, it will have more time to complete its work. Miller and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who opened Thursday’s events by urging the commission not to be “shy or mealy-mouthed” in making recommendations that are “as bold and as concrete” as possible, agreed before the session that the panel would aim to send its report to Spellings by mid- to late September instead of August 1 as previously planned. Releasing a report in the dead of summer makes little sense, Miller said he and the secretary agreed.

If Thursday’s discussion is any indication, the panel may need the extra time to reach agreement among its 19 members, who come to the broad array of complicated and thorny issues from many different perspectives. In the last few weeks, Miller and the commission’s staff had collected all of the ideas and recommendations that the panel’s members and various external witnesses had offered during the eight months of testimony to this point, divided them up into a series of broad categories (“universal access and preparation,” “accountability: assessment and consumer information”), collected them into a 150-page document circulated to the panel's members, and, through an e-mail tally, sought to get an initial sense of which general ideas the commission’s members had a “tendency” to agree on.

But the difficulty in achieving even that tentative consensus was clear right out of the gate. The first session on Thursday, on access and preparation, was led by Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College, and her attempt at drafting a “problem statement” -- which essentially said that “every person who can benefit from postsecondary education should have a place in college, and that it should be affordable” -- was, like many such efforts during the afternoon’s discussion, picked apart. Miller said that saying access to a postsecondary education should be “universal” implied that colleges didn’t have a right to set standards, and Robert M. Zemsky, an education professor and president of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania, took issue with the vagueness of the word “affordable.”

Zemsky returned to that theme a little later when Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, led a session on, yes, affordability, and posited that “postsecondary education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for greater numbers of Americans.”

“The term 'unaffordable' means 'I don’t buy it,' ” Zemsky said, and yet students are flooding into American higher education in record numbers. He clashed with Kati Haycock, head of Education Trust, and James B. Hunt, the former governor of North Carolina, about whether price or insufficient preparation was keeping more students out of college. Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cited data showing how much more quickly unmet financial need has grown for college students from the bottom of the economic ladder than for those at the top. “To me, it’s about fairness and unfairness, and the message to me, and I’m going to oversimplify here, is that you’re better off being rich and dumb than you are poor and smart. And that’s a message that, to me, is every bit as urgent for us to address.”

The argument led some panel members to suggest that they postpone that subject for another time. But decision time will come, Miller warned: “We may have to duke it out, have a jump ball,” he said. “We need to not run away from the language, the tough stuff.”

What became clear as the day went on, though, was that there was more “tough stuff” than easy stuff. In the affordability discussion, one “solution” that Mendenhall said the panel’s members had reached tentative agreement on as the staff collected responses in recent weeks was that the commission endorse the idea of targeting “financial aid to the truly needy students,” and that “need-based aid should be the dominent practice of financial aid programs/offices.” That would include discouraging state officials from emphasizing lottery-based merit aid programs over need, and potentially eliminating or reducing federal tax credits and loan subsidies that go to students who don’t have significant financial need.

And while many of the commission’s members expressed support for that notion in general terms, Hunt, the political pro among them, offered a strong caution. “If you think you’re going to go out there and take those tax credits away from middle class families, you ought to reenroll in Politics 101 at some college out there,” he said. (Hunt probably earned his way into the hearts of college officials when he told fellow panel members that redistributing funds would not suffice, and that governments should pour more money into higher education -- a sentiment rarely expressed during the panel's deliberations to date. Several other commission members said, and Hunt didn't disagree, that any additional money should come only if higher education can also prove that it is doing a good job with what it already has.)

Perhaps the broadest consensus during the course of the afternoon emerged in a session about accountability, led by Miller, around the idea that American colleges must provide significantly more and better information about their operations to a broad set of constituents, including students and parents, employers, policy makers and the public. In suggesting the possibility of a "Consumer Reports" model, the chairman did not get a fight in broad outline from the higher education representatives on the panel, like James J. Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president, who said: “Transparency is absolutely essential to public trust and confidence, and public trust and confidence is absolutely essential to gaining more resources” for colleges.
But Vest seconded Ward’s warning about the devil being in the details, especially when it comes to trying to measure how successfully colleges teach their students, a theme Miller has pounded since the commission began its work. “What it is that has caused so much of higher education to rebel against the idea of measuring student learning is the fear of things like we’ve seen in the past, to come up with a couple of simplistic numbers that would not mean all that much, and might lead to a lot of what we don’t want, like gaming the system and teaching to the test rather than really educating kids.”

The last session of the day focused on accreditation, which has been a highly contentious topic during the commission’s work to date. On Thursday, some commissioners argued that accreditation should be fairly drastically overhauled to make it a major “lever” in changing higher education, by setting standards that would apply to groups from all regions and all disciplines. But Mendenhall of Western Governors was among several panel members who suggested that the accreditation process wasn’t robust enough to handle any additional responsibilities, because "the bar is too low."

The panel continues its work Friday, with discussions on meeting labor and work force needs and fostering innovation.


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