Who Leads?

Education secretary's final higher ed summit finds general consensus on problems, but less on how to fix them -- and who should take charge.
July 21, 2008

As a group of state leaders at last week's Education Department summit on higher education began a discussion aimed at identifying the biggest problems facing higher education and potential achievable solutions to them, the session's moderator asked for a volunteer willing to report back to the larger summit about the fruits of the group's brainstorming. The previous day, the moderator explained, a department staff member had done the reporting out for each of the breakout groups, but the summit's leaders thought it would be better if the reports came instead from participants.

So, any volunteers? she asked again. Despite repeated entreaties, no takers emerged.

That small moment provided an apt metaphor for a nagging problem that has underscored much of the nearly three-year conversation surrounding the Bush administration's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and its campaign to reform American higher education.

From virtually the moment Education Secretary Margaret Spellings appointed her commission in September 2005, and ever since, there has been widespread agreement about the nature of the problems facing higher education and American society and, in the big picture, at least, relative consensus about what needs to be done: Significantly increase the number of young Americans and adults who enter and succeed in college, by strengthening the academic preparation of those emerging from the nation's high schools and expanding the capacity of colleges and universities. Make higher education more affordable, by simplifying the student aid system and making colleges more cost effective. Improve the transparency of higher education, to help policy makers judge the success of postsecondary institutions.

The relative agreement about all that, though, has been accompanied by far less consensus about how to actually do those things. It has become clear to most parties that the federal government's role in bringing about those changes must be limited, but also that actions by individual institutions or states -- even if more of them were to occur -- are unlikely to produce enough coordinated progress to get the job done. Lots of individual colleges, associations and states have shown leadership in various ways, but agreement is broad that much of the heavy lifting remains to be done.

So while last week's summit represented a breakthrough of sorts -- with an atmosphere marked more by cooperative spirit than the tension and sometimes conflict between higher education leaders and federal and other critics that has characterized much of the last two years -- Thursday and Friday's discussions in Chicago were ultimately frustrating because of their failure to answer fundamental and vexing questions:

  • How can fundamental and widespread change be accomplished at the national level without being driven by federal (and therefore governmental) considerations and parties?
  • Is it possible for colleges and states to act in a coordinated way to solve national problems in more than a scattershot, piecemeal way?
  • If so, who leads those efforts, and when and how do they step up?

A 'Take Home Test'

In their descriptions of the invitation-only summit, "A Test of Leadership: Committing to Advance Postsecondary Education for All Americans" ("it's a take-home test," Spellings said, for participants to take back to their campuses and states), Education Department officials had emphasized the extent to which they had sought a new tone for their interactions with higher education leaders.

Pick your reason for the shift: perhaps chastened by rebuffs from Congress on proposed regulatory changes in higher education accreditation and other areas, or cognizant that the clock is running out on the Bush administration, or, maybe, just recognizing anew, as Spellings put it in her speech to the gathering on Friday, that "we can only do so much to set the table and set the pace at the federal level," as "most of the work has to happen in your states and at your institutions."

Consistent with the latter theme, the summit's first half day, on Thursday afternoon, was (after unveiling a proposal by Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker to revamp the federal financial aid structure) designed mostly to highlight notable achievements made in recent years by several university systems: the University System of Maryland (for its effectiveness and efficiency efforts), the California State University System (for programs aimed at helping high school students prepare for college level work, among other things) and the University of Nebraska, for its role in a program designed to encourage low-income students to go to college.)

In discussion groups Thursday, participants sought to share good ideas that had already been tried, and to zero in on the areas on which relatively little progress had been made so far.

"There is a great deal of ferment out there, experimentation, progress," David Shulenberger, vice president for academic affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said during Thursday afternoon's discussion about efforts by individual colleges, states and associations like his to improve student access, higher education affordability, and institutional accountability, like NASULGC's own Voluntary System of Accountability. Department officials said they would try to tap into that creativity and experimentation -- and share it widely -- by creating a "wiki" to become a common meeting place and brainstorming venue for those it had invited to the summit.

If Thursday's first day left observers feeling like the participants might break into a round of "Kumbaya," Spellings altered that tone a bit when she addressed the group Friday morning. It's not that she fundamentally changed the message that most of the work to be done to improve higher education has to be done by states and colleges, not by the government; that ship has sailed.

But while she praised colleges like Miami Dade College and James Madison University for having taken her commission's calls for greater assessment and accountability seriously, Spellings aggressively made the case that higher education has to be more willing to change than it has been at some key times in the past, and that if it doesn't produce from within, others will impose change from the outside.

While "[r]igorous debate and analysis are the hallmarks of the academy ... there is often real hesitancy to turn that critical thinking inward" to look at higher education itself, Spellings said, echoing the sort of language ("tough love," as she described it) that her commission used that some observers have criticized for unnecessarily putting higher education on the defensive.

"I feel honor-bound to remind you that in the absence of continued leadership in education, others will step in," she said. "When public demand reaches critical mass, policy makers are compelled to act whether they're in the Congress or on state boards or in state legislatures. I suspect their solutions will likely not be as informed or sophisticated as what you would propose. Because while terms like 'access, affordability, and accountability' are abstract concepts to many in Washington, they represent real-life challenges to students and faculties. And policy makers are pressured and obligated to respond." (Spellings cited as evidence of ill-advised policy making the Higher Education Act legislation working its way through Congress, only the latest in her critiques of the Democratic-led legislative branch.)

When summit participants broke up into discussion groups (one for leaders of institutions, one for state and other policy makers, and one for business and community leaders) on Friday after Spellings's speech, their task was to pick the most important work that was both doable and had yet to be done, and to identify the parties most responsible for doing it.

Those conversations were at times frustrating to listen to because they seemed to tread the same ground that one might have heard at meetings of the Spellings Commission two years ago, with individuals identifying their pet issues and, in some cases, suggesting work that needed to be done by others. That brought a gentle scolding from the moderator of one session, who said, "We don't want to end up with a list of 'to do's' for somebody else." Rick Stephens, a Boeing Co. executive who was on the original Spellings Commission, expressed a similar worry during the session for business leaders. "I'm concerned we're going to walk away with a list that's interesting" but too long to get done, he said. "We need to coalesce around a few things."

Some of the problems were clearly seen as too thorny to be on the short list for attacking in 18 months: When the moderator in the session institutional leaders suggested that they use "revitalizing accreditation" as a starting point for discussion, several participants said they believed there were too many people who needed to be involved in that task, and that the job might be too complex, to be a worthwhile short-term focus.

Vickie L. Schray, who as the Education Department's point person on accreditation has been at the heart of numerous battles over the issue for the last two years, concurred that they move on. "Our goal today is to drill down and find a handful of items that you can get some traction on" in the next year or two, Schray said. "I don't know that that's something institutions can taken on as an action item."

Ultimately, the groups reached fairly widespread agreement about what needs to be done: begin work on doubling the number of Americans who earn a higher education; align curriculums and standards between high school and college so significantly more young Americans come into higher education prepared for college-level work; simplify the student aid system; and produce more and better ways of measuring how much students learn, and of sharing that and other information about colleges' performance with the public.

Those are big jobs all, especially to the extent that most of them would benefit from being done in a way that would be systematized, at least to some extent, across institutions and around the country.

Which leads back to the question of how to craft national solutions to problems in a higher education "system" that actually isn't a system at all. Given the widespread agreement that it shouldn't be done through the federal government, what are the other options? Groups of states working together? Common standards set by the regional accrediting associations? Higher education's national associations?

Or perhaps a new national commission, this one made up of people in and around higher education and focused not on identifying the problems (and placing blame), but on implementing solutions?


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