A Stinging First Draft

U.S. commission's preliminary report says higher education's glory days may be over without "substantial" changes.
June 27, 2006

For railroads and steel manufacturers, the best days are past. Do American colleges and universities face the same fate?

That's the grim prospect laid out in a draft report released Monday by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which the panel's chairman, Charles Miller, in a hastily written e-mail note that accompanied the document's release, described as "very rough."

"History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to -- or even to notice -- changes in the world around them," the report said, adding: "Our year-long examination of the challenges facing higher education has brought us to the uneasy conclusion that the sector's past attainments have led it to unseemly complacency about the future."

The 27-page preliminary report (a link to which is also available here) -- which is enough a work in progress that it lacks a conclusion -- largely delivers the back of its hand to American higher education, which it describes as offering "equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity."

After a fleeting opening mention of higher education as "one of [the nation's] greatest success stories," the report lays out dozens of mostly critical findings, including

  • Insufficient access to higher education for many Americans, caused by inadequate student preparation, poor alignment between high school and college standards, and informational and financial barriers.
  • "The seemingly inexorable increase in college costs," driven by "colleges' and universities' failure to seek institutional efficiencies and by their disregard for improving productivity," and a system of higher education finance that is "increasingly dysfunctional, inefficient, and inadequate."
  • "Evidence that the quality of student learning at U.S. colleges and universities is inadequate and, in some cases, declining."
  • A "woeful lack" of publicly available and rigorously accurate information about colleges, most of which "make no serious effort to examine their effectiveness on the most important measure of all: how much students learn."

Those and other findings, the draft report suggests, require a set of "imaginative solutions that are not just incremental but that rethink numerous aspects of today's higher education system in substantial ways."

It recommends dozens of changes, including:

  • Expanding access to college by "sealing the leaks in the educational pipeline," better aligning K-12 and higher education standards and curriculums, and reforming colleges of education.
  • Overhauling the "entire financial aid system" in ways that would increase the availability of need-based aid and eliminate the complex federal financial aid form. Although it talks about a "streamlined" system, the draft, as written, stops short of calling for radically reducing the number of federal grant and loan programs, although some commissioners favor that.
  • Improving colleges' productivity by insisting that they better control costs and prices ("college tuition should not rise faster than family incomes") and encouraging competition from "new competitors to traditional four-year institutions," notably "community colleges and private for-profit providers," which can be accomplished by "reducing barriers to the transfer of credit between institutions."
  • Encouraging states to require that public institutions measure their students' learning through a potpourri of tests and surveys, and directing colleges to "make aggregate summary results of all postsecondary learning measures ... publicly available in a consumer-friendly form."
  • Developing a "unit record" system ("with appropriate privacy safeguards") to allow for the tracking of student performance across their academic careers.
  • Creating a "national accreditation framework," though the draft does not specify whether this should be in addition to or in place of the current system of regional accreditation.

As recently as Friday, Miller, the chairman, and the commission's staff had not been planning on releasing the draft report to the public, maintaining that federal law allowed the commission to keep its written work private until it completed work on a final report. But over the weekend, after a partial draft that circulated among the panel's members provoked a significant outcry about its harshly critical tone, Miller said that the commission would release a draft, which was written by a small cadre of professional writers and consultants to the chairman.

In the e-mail accompanying the release of the draft late Monday, Miller said: "It is expected that this version will undergo significant changes and edits over the course of our discussions. As also expected, since we represent a very diverse group of stakeholders, the draft report represents a multitude of opinions."

He added: "This marks the beginning of the commission's most difficult phase of work. Continuing the process we began at our last meeting in May, the results of that discussion have been used by staff to produce this draft report for review, comment and debate by the commission. This is a work in progress and the lively debate we anticipate will result in a strong report to the Secretary and the nation."

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, said: "Secretary Spellings appointed an independent commission to ignite a robust, healthy debate about the future of higher education in America. Further, she specifically sought commissioners with wide-ranging backgrounds and opinions to launch this national dialogue. The Secretary has not read the draft but looks forward to reviewing the report this fall when the commission finishes its work and puts forward final recommendations."

Several members of the panel said they would save their comments about the new draft until the commission meets to review and revise the report in Washington on Wednesday. (Even though that meeting will include a majority of the commission's members, the get-together will be closed to the public because the members will gather in small quorum-less groups, which commission leaders say allow them to skirt federal open meetings law.)

Other commissioners, however, offered a range of views about the draft report, though virtually all of them said they believed the document seemed to go out of its way to rough up higher education.

Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, cautioned that the report had to be seen as a first draft, and joked that his own first drafts need a whole lot of work. "It's a whole lot easier to edit than to create," he said. Even so, Mendenhall said, "most if not all of the commissioners believe it is in need of significant revision, and that the tone of it is more negative toward the academy than it needs to be."

Sara Martinez Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation, who like Mendenhall is widely seen as being neither a critic of traditional higher education (like Miller) nor a lockstep defender of the academy, agreed with Mendenhall that the document was "too pointed" in its criticism of higher education.

But from a substantive standpoint, she said, the draft largely reflected the ideas that subcommittees of commissioners had offered during their months of work.  As she worked over the document with a highlighter and compared it to reports from the panel's various subcommittees, she said, "most of my comments are the way we're saying it, not what we're saying."

The most skeptical view of the draft report came from Robert Zemsky, an education professor and head of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania, who is a thoughtful observer of higher education but largely a supporter of it. "The most distressing thing to me is that it's just mean-spirited," Zemsky said of the report. "Critiques can be very effective, but mean-spirited critiques just don't go anywhere."


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