Commission Report, Take 2

U.S. panel's second draft spanks colleges less and strokes them more. But major substantive changes are few.
July 17, 2006

Gone are the statement that America's colleges and universities face "grave" problems, an offhanded reference to grade inflation, and the controversial call for a "national" approach to higher education accreditation. In their place are descriptions to colleges as "treasured national assets" and to American higher education as "the very best system in the world."

The second draft of the report by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which was circulated to the panel's members late Friday and could be released publicly as soon as today, differs significantly from the heavily criticized staff-written first draft that the commission's chairman, Charles Miller, released two weeks ago.

The latest report is far from a finished product -- it includes neither a preamble (which contained the first draft’s most inflammatory language) or a conclusion, for instance -- but the new document is much more cohesive and more fully represents the views of the 19 commissioners, whose written and verbal critiques of the rushed-into-print initial draft are incorporated on every page. Many panel members complained that the initial draft mainly reflected the thinking and work of the commission’s outside writer and stable of consultants, often seen through the prism of Miller himself. Commission members sent in written comments, and 12 of the commissioners gathered behind closed doors in Washington late last month to review and revise the first draft.

Taken together, the changes made in response to commissioners' criticisms of the initial report -- many of which focused on its tendency to favor harsh-sounding and simplistic rhetoric and recommendations over practical, well-conceived analysis and answers -- do not radically alter the panel's bottom line view: that higher education must perform better in educating students and in proving its value to the American public.

And many if not most of the initial draft's findings and recommendations remain intact, a fact many college officials will rue. The second draft, like the first, calls for the creation of a national "unit records" system to track students' performance through their academic careers and into the work place (though it calls the proposal something else), and urges the collection and publication of significantly more information that colleges have either not collected or, more often, held close to the vest.

But in case after case, the second draft shuns the instinct, so prevalent in the first, to "throw rocks" at higher education, as one commissioner put it in written comments to his colleagues. That doesn't mean the new report lets colleges off the hook or ignores higher education's real and serious problems; it just does so in language that is more descriptive and less inflamed. And it says quite a bit more about the important role that higher education plays in American society and in bettering the lives of U.S. citizens.

In many ways the changes are subtle. Like the original draft, the new one makes the point in no uncertain terms that higher education is too expensive (it calls price increases "unacceptably large") and that the rising cost of college is "contributing to the erosion of public credibility in higher education."

The first report attributed the declining affordability first and foremost to "the failure of postsecondary institutions to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity," which it called an "abdication of responsibility."

All of that language is gone from the second draft, which instead focuses on the lack of incentives colleges have to control their spending or their prices, and a system in which high prices can perversely be seen as a sign of prestige.

Gone, too, is the first draft's recommendation that "college tuition should not rise faster than family incomes." But college leaders are unlikely to find much to like in the barely changed recommendation that appears in its stead, which suggests holding institutions to a standard that "the growth in college tuition would not exceed the growth in median family income over a five-year period." (There was significant disagreement among the commissioners about whether the family income standard is fair to use.)

The second draft also acknowledges that state support for higher education has declined significantly, and that the decreases in state aid are at least partly to blame for the increase in public colleges' tuition and fees. College officials had described this as one of the first draft’s most significant omissions. Similarly, the new report calls for increased federal investment in higher education to bolster American competitiveness, which the original draft said next to nothing about.

Findings and Recommendations

The second draft contains six overarching findings, most of which are made up of several ancillary ones. They include the following:

  • The value of and need for higher education has never been more important, for individuals or for American society, given the fast-changing nature of today’s “knowledge-driven” economy.
  • Too many Americans are underprepared for, and fail to succeed in, higher education, and are therefore unlikely to get the skills they need to get good jobs and have good lives. This is especially true for minority and low-income Americans, and for adult students.
  • Colleges’ costs and the prices they charge students are rising too fast, driven by a range of factors, including declining state aid (which is unlikely to grow again), excessive spending on such things as administration and fancy dorms, and overregulation. Rising prices are undermining public confidence in higher education.
  • The financial aid system is “inefficient, duplicative, and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it.” Too much aid is awarded based on academic or other merit and given to students who would be attending college regardless; students are taking on too much loan debt; and the true price of college is often hidden from the public. 
  • At a time when students should be gaining more from their college educations, “there are too many signs that suggest we are moving in the opposite direction.” Graduation rates and  measures of students’ literacy and preparation for the work force all suggest that “the quality and relevancy of American higher education and its ability to produce informed and skilled citizens able to compete in the 21st century global marketplace are in question.”
  • “There is inadequate transparency and accountability” in gauging students’ access to college and the institutions’ quality and cost. Parents and students have “no solid evidence” by which to compare how much students learn at different institutions, and many measures of students’ success leave out part-time students, who make up an ever-growing share of all undergraduates. And the accreditation system has “significant shortcomings.”
  • Governments, accreditors and colleges themselves impede rather than encourage innovations that might allow higher education to more effectively teach students and train workers. 

Those findings point the way to several major recommendations, the draft report says:

  • To “change from a system based on reputation to one based on performance,” higher education must become much more transparent and accountable. The report calls for the creation of a “consumer friendly information database” that would provide data on college costs and prices, admissions data, completion rates and learning outcomes; urges states to require public institutions to measure and report how much their students learn in college; and endorses the creation of a national (“privacy protected”) system that tracks students’ progress through the education system and into the work force.
  • To establish “postsecondary education as an opportunity for every student,” policy makers and institutions should expand college access by “improving student preparation and persistence, addressing non-academic barriers to college and providing significant increases in aid to low-income students” (though the latter change, the report says, should be “subject to simplification and restructuring” of the financial aid system”).
  • Because higher education is becoming increasingly unaffordable, the financial aid system should be restructured (and consolidated, where appropriate, to focus funds on the Pell Grant Program and on financial support based on student need rather than merit) and institutions should be pushed and prodded, by state governing boards and their own leaders, to manage themselves more effectively and bring down their costs in educating students.
  • To stimulate innovation and “continuous improvement,” higher education should “harness the power of information technology” by using distance education, embracing open content initiatives, and investing in learning related research.
  • The country should adopt a “national strategy for lifelong learning,” through a mix of individual financial accounts, policies that ease the transfer of credits between states and institutions, more aid for part-time learners.
  • The government should increase its spending on science and engineering and alter its immigration policies to encourage foreign graduates of American universities to stay in the country, rather than deterring them from doing so.

Commission staff members said in a memo accompanying the second draft that the panel's leaders hope to have its members reach agreement on the findings and recommendations before producing the rest of the report. It is not clear whether that "agreement" will be reached through actual votes or some less formal process.

The memo also said that another public meeting of the commission is planned, probably on August 10.


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