The Education Department’s higher education commission held its version of “open mic night” Tuesday during a six-hour session in Seattle at which members of the general public had the chance to shape the panel’s final product -- a report on the state of higher education to be presented to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings by August 1.
Last fall, Spellings announced the creation  of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, to focus on two primary issues: how to make higher education accessible and affordable, and how to prepare students to meet future work force needs. The panel, which was also encouraged to pay significant attention to quality and accountability issues, has held three meetings so far, most recently in San Diego last week,  in which it has heard mostly from higher education experts.
Tuesday’s “public hearing” was the first designed specifically to include comments from everyday citizens. One member of the commission, Richard Stephens, a senior vice president at Boeing, said the public hearing format allowed the group to “get more data and hear from those who wouldn’t always have an opportunity to speak up.”
And as expected, the themes varied immensely, from curbing sexual harassment and defamation on campuses to supporting a community college program that helps special-needs students.
Affordability was a hot topic among those who signed up to speak at the Seattle hearing. A series of presenters sounded off on what they felt was insufficient spending by the federal government on grant programs that would relieve students of mounting debt.
The speeches differed in tenor, from formal lectures filled with statistics to motivational addresses suited for university commencements.
Anne Groundwater, a University of Oregon student representing the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, used her three minutes in front of the commission to put a face on the issue of student loans.
“I’m scared,” Groundwater said. “If I’m an average student [at the University of Oregon], I’m going to have $18,000 worth of debt. My peers and I shouldn’t have to choose careers based on the debt we’re going to accumulate.”
Jennifer Pae, vice president of the United States Student Association and a former student at the University of California at San Diego, echoed that sentiment. “We need to make sure that the commission tells the federal government loud and clear to expand grant aid.”
For those still uncertain of the association’s message, dozens of members came wearing black-and-white t-shirts emblazoned with the words: “Recognize the Federal Role: Expand Grant Aid. Make Loans Manageable.”
Kathleen Ross, president of Heritage University, in rural Toppenish, Wash., said she would like to see an increasing focus on need-based financial aid. “We know firsthand of watching a talented person walk away because there simply isn’t enough aid.”
Hours earlier, the commission heard from and questioned a series of invited panelists from the Pacific Northwest. As in past meetings, a rhetorical theme emerged: Be bold. Both panelists and commissioners agreed it is time for major steps to improve higher education.
“The biggest problem is the lack of sense of public urgency,” said the University of Washington’s president, Mark Emmert. While praising the country’s public university systems for doing “remarkable things on a global scale,” Emmert warned: “We’re going to look back and all of a sudden notice we aren’t competitive enough.”
He called on members of the Baby Boom generation to invest in higher education by supporting legislation that increases funding. Sam Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University, called for a new federal act -- similar to the 1862 Morrill Act that established the land grant university system -- to help states fund their universities.
Commissioners and panelists discussed the viability of a lifelong learning account that would be an investment by family, government and employers from a person’s birth.
Stephens said the private sector can provide help on that front. He said his company spends $100 million annually for employees to further their education. The focus, he said, needs to be on smaller and mid-level companies that don’t provide such assistance to their workers.
Pam Tate, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which partners with employers, higher education and government to educate working adults, said of the 7,000 employers surveyed by the organization, only 35 percent said they offered a tuition program. She supports making tax credits accessible for adults and redesigning student aid to support lifelong learners.
Community colleges are just beginning to call upon corporations for financial help, said Charles Mitchell, chancellor of the Seattle Community College District.
Another commission member, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, said he and fellow commissioners have a “congenial attitude” toward increased private sector involvement.
Other recommendations made to the commission included:
- Supporting historically black colleges – particularly those damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
- Training minority students to become teachers.
- Encouraging Native American students to enroll in postsecondary schools.
- Increasing the number of health centers on campus.
- Requiring all high school students to take four years of taking a similar core curriculum, and monitoring the schools to make sure they are in compliance
Those who spoke in front of the commission also presented it with written testimony for review. Another public hearing is scheduled for next month in Boston.
“We’re inching our way forward toward reaching a consensus,” Vedder said.