After months of discussions involving a slew of panels of witnesses and a flurry of position papers  written by outsiders or its chairman, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education took tentative first steps Thursday toward shaping an agenda for what it might actually say in its report in August.
And for all the bluster contained in recent reports suggesting radical overhauls of the federal financial aid system  and the American system of higher education accreditation,  among other proposals, the broad “goals” that the panel’s members ranked highest in an hour-long discussion at the end of the first day of a two-day meeting in Indianapolis leaned toward the important but comparatively noncontroversial: bolstering access and success for low-income, minority and adult students; ensuring a “national commitment” to lifelong learning; calling for a “national commitment” to need-based financial aid; doubling the number of critically needed scientists and engineers. (Further down the list was “increasing accountability and transparency to improve quality.”)
The mainstream nature of the recommendations -- which emerged from a New Age/corporate-style discussion known as “nominal group technique,” in which the commissioners took turns suggesting “values” and then “goals” they thought were important, and then picked their top three choices individually, to create a group ranking -- very much pleased those college officials who have been most troubled by the explosive nature of some of the ideas emanating from the panel’s chairman, Charles Miller, and position papers he has released.
“After the parade of the disaffected, the commission has begun to move back toward the middle, where American public policy will work its will,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who has tracked the commission’s work closely and expressed great concern about what he calls proposals to “demolish accreditation,” “dismantle the federal financial aid system,” and create a “nationwide system of student outcomes.”
“These ideas sound much more familiar,” Warren said.
But in an interview after the day’s deliberations, which also included panel discussions about college costs and accreditation, Miller suggested that Warren and other college officials might be engaging in a bit of wishful thinking if they believe the commission isn’t still headed toward issuing a “strong report with strong language,” and turning the general “goals” agreed to Thursday into a set of tough recommendations that hold institutions much more accountable for their performance.
Miller said he was confident that the commission was nearing consensus on proposals on “reforming [accreditation] and changing it for the better,” “more and better assessment of student learning,” and “making much more consumer information available” on how colleges “perform for students and the public.” He also said the financial aid goals endorsed by the commission can be achieved not by “tweaking the current system,” but only by “starting over.”
“If we do those things, we will have done something transformative,” Miller said.
The priority setting session, which was led by Richard Stephens, a commission member who is senior vice president for human resources and administration at Boeing, capped an afternoon filled with the kind of wide-ranging and disjointed, but often interesting, panel discussions that have marked the commission’s four meetings to date. It began with opening comments in which Miller portrayed higher education as dangerously out of touch: “slow to adopt technology,” “fattening hierarchies rather than flatting hierarchies,” and “generally resistant to transparency or performance measurement.”
The two broad areas of discussion at Thursday’s meeting -- affordability and accreditation -- followed in the wake of “issue papers” on those subjects, released over the past week, that have stimulated significant discussion and, in some quarters, consternation.
The actual discussions Thursday were much tamer. The five-member panel on college affordability was all over the map, in part, noted Jonathan Grayer, the chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., because of a lack of clarity about what “affordability” means and how it can be improved. Some of the panelists focused their comments, Grayer said, on finding “more equitable ways to produce the same amount of funds to pay for higher education,” rather than, as he preferred, seeking to change colleges’ practices to “really get at the affordability question in higher education.”
Barry D. Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel of the University of Texas System, summarized the paper he wrote for the commission on the perceived failures of the federal financial aid system,  including the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant Program, heavy loan debt, and the fact that education tax credits primarily benefit upper-income Americans. Simplifying the aid system so that more Americans make use of it, he said, would get “a lot more bang for our $78 billion a year than we’re currently getting.”
The discussion touched only briefly on the idea more or less buried in the position paper of consolidating the various federal grant and loan programs into just one or two – although Richard Vedder, the Ohio University professor who is perhaps the commission’s most outspoken (and most entertaining) member, asked if it might make sense to pour most of the federal aid into one program that would give needy students $7,500 a year apiece, nearly double the current maximum Pell Grant of $4,050. (“Vedder Grants” is how Robert M. Zemsky, chair and professor of the University of Pennsylvania's Learning Alliance who is Vedder’s friendly antagonist on the panel, dubbed the idea that would never come to be.)
Another proposal, which captured the fancy of a few commissioners, came from James C. Garland, president of Ohio’s Miami University. He described the current system of financing public colleges as badly broken, because states face too many other competing priorities for their limited funds and the funds state governments give their public institutions each year (in exchange for limiting tuition) subsidize the education of wealthy students as well as poor ones.
He suggested replacing that system with a model in which states like Ohio would phase out their annual “subsidies” to colleges and instead create grants that would go mostly to low- and moderate-income students to use at any college in the state, including private ones. The formerly public institutions would be transformed into nonprofit corporations, and the ensuing competition for students, Garland asserted, would drive down prices and improve colleges’ performance, helping students’ better afford college. (The middle class would never go for it, dooming the proposal politically, some observers in the audience speculated.)
Two other speakers answered Grayer’s call to suggest approaches that could truly bring down colleges’ costs, by reducing what they spend to educate students. Frank Mayadas, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, urged the commission to throw its weight behind the online learning movement that the foundation has helped foster through its Sloan Consortium.  Colleges have proven that they can use new modes of delivering education through technology to significantly expand the number of students they reach, Mayadas said, although he acknowledged, in response to a question from Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that there are no independent studies “that compare results [and student outcomes] of online learning with traditional bricks and mortar institutions.”
But Carol A. Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, said that a project sponsored by her group  had proven that it is “possible to improve student learning while reducing student costs.” Using various teaching technologies, the original 30 institutions in the Program in Course Redesign  had reduced the costs of big introductory courses by an average of 37 percent, and 25 of the 30 had shown improvement in how students performed (the other five showed little or no change).
Zemsky asked her if it would be feasible to create a federal “loan bank” in which institutions could use the funds to inject the practices Twigg’s project has shown to work into their curriculums, and then repay the loans with the money they save. Absolutely, she said.
The day’s other panel discussion - about accreditation -- was a bit of an anticlimax, following as it did last week’s issue paper that called for replacing the current system of regional accreditation with a national body that would set standards across the country.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, which oversees the current accreditation system, opened her remarks by wryly congratulating Miller for living up to one of his promises. “You said you wanted to spark a national dialogue on higher education,” and several months before issuing your report, “you have already achieved this particular objective,” she said. “We're having a lot of conversation, and you have our attention.”
She went on to argue that the current system works a lot better than Dickeson, Miller and other critics give it credit for, but vowed to work with the commission on an “accountability agenda” in which the accrediting groups would help prod colleges to do a better job measuring their performance in educating students, work more rigorously to promote quality, and expand the information accrediting groups and colleges reveal to the public.
Miller responded with a bit of conciliation, saying that he had asked the author of that paper, Robert E. Dickeson, a consultant to the commission and former vice president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, to write critically about the accreditation system and to put forward “bold ideas.” “Those are ideas, and we don't necessarily come to a conclusion just because we put them on paper.”
The meeting continues today with discussions about articulation -- the flow of students between different kinds of colleges and sectors of education -- and about accountability, which will include a call by the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, M. Peter McPherson, for a voluntary system of accountability for different types of colleges.