Last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings laid out a promising agenda to keep our colleges and universities strong in this demanding age. As she rightly noted in her comments on the report of Commission on the Future of Higher Education, America's public and private institutions of higher education are the envy of the world.
But as we work to deal with the immense challenges of this rapidly changing time, it’s vital for our colleges and universities -- fine as they now are -- to be open to change, and Congress, the Department of Education, and the higher education community will need to work well together to find the way forward.
The commission and the Secretary are right to call attention to the nation’s unfinished business on college access, affordability, and accountability. It's unacceptable that the average student now graduates with $17,500 in student loan debt, 73 percent of all colleges still find it necessary to offer remedial classes for entering students, and that only 15 percent of African American students and 10 percent of Latino students obtain bachelor's degrees today, compared to 30 percent of white students.
As many have said, the Commission’s best recommendation is for an increase in the Pell Grant, so that the average award will cover 70 percent of the typical tuition at a four-year public college, compared to only 44 percent of the cost today. Unfortunately, Secretary Spellings backed away from that specific recommendation in her remarks, calling instead only for an “increase” in need-based grant aid. For the past four years, the maximum Pell Grant has been frozen at $4,050 a year, contributing to the crushing debt that burdens so many today. As a result, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance estimates that up to 2.4 million qualified students will fail to obtain bachelor's degrees this decade because of financial barriers.
It’s also disappointing that neither the commission nor the Secretary went further to discuss needed reforms of the federal student loan programs, which provide over $60 billion a year to support students’ postsecondary education -- more than any other source. During the commission's deliberations, Chairman Charles Miller said he wanted to "avoid getting bogged down" in specific discussions about these complicated programs. The commission’s report, which issues a broad call for the entire student financial aid system to be restructured, reflects that.
Had the commission peeled back the layers, it would have quickly uncovered the many details of federal student loan programs that bedevil students and families every day in their struggle to pay for college. The government squanders billions of education dollars each year to guarantee that private lenders bear virtually no risk when they make loans. It rewards lenders more for collecting on defaulted loans than for keeping borrowers in good standing. It inexplicably favors subsidies for private lenders, instead of the government’s own far less expensive Direct Loan program.
Obvious reforms could make the current dysfunctional student loan system far more effective. We could generate $13 billion in new Pell Grants over the next 10 years simply by allowing fair competition between the privately funded loan programs and the Direct Loan program. We could expand income-contingent repayment for student loans, so that borrowers would not have to allocate more than 15 percent of their monthly income to loan re-payments. We could grant loan forgiveness after 10 years to those in public service professions such as teaching, public health, and law enforcement. No debate about the future of higher education can move forward effectively without addressing this urgent problem. It's time to throw the money lenders out of the temple of higher education.
It's also time to give higher priority to community colleges. They now enroll 45 percent of all undergraduates, but they’re frequently an afterthought in discussions of education policy and funding. Community colleges do more to promote college access and equity than any other aspect of higher education. More is demanded of them as well -- from educating first-time, low-income, and immigrant students to educating adults seeking new careers and workers seeking better skills for their current jobs.
Community colleges received little mention in the commission’s report or the Secretary's speech, but many of their recommendations are directly applicable to two-year programs. In Massachusetts, for example, community colleges work directly with high schools to align the school curriculum to college-level work. They help underprepared and nontraditional students advance to college. Through their links to area Workforce Investment Boards and regional development, they advance the commission’s recommendation that higher education do more to promote career pathways for students.
Implementing these recommendations may be easy -- but moving forward with others will be difficult, such as the commission's call for colleges to measure student learning through standardized assessments. In addition, many states -- including Massachusetts -- have developed databases to track students' progress through higher education, but significant questions exist about creating a national database. Obviously, these ideas require serious study and discussion involving both the higher education community and Congress.
Sixty years ago, our country and our higher education system stood at a similar crossroads. Hundreds of thousands of G.I.’s had returned home from World War II, eager for new skills, new opportunities, and their chance for the American Dream. The Cold War presented a frontal challenge to our place in the world. In response, President Harry Truman appointed the nation’s first Commission on Higher Education, an unprecedented effort that brought an end to racial discrimination in college admissions, built on the success of the G.I. Bill by enacting new grant and scholarship programs for students, and spurred the rigorous development of our community colleges.
With that same kind of vision today, we can use our remarkable system of higher education to help turn this era of globalization into a new era of opportunity for America. Secretary Spellings and her commission deserve our gratitude for launching this dialogue. Now it’s up to all of us to chart the rest of the path.
Edward M. Kennedy
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Remember Ronald Reagan? During the primary campaign in 1980 and later his presidential debates with Jimmy Carter, Reagan would offer an admonishing “there you go again” whenever his opponents made statement he deemed to misrepresent his positions.
Clearly we need someone to offer a very public, very stern, and clearly admonishing “there you go again” to Cary Sherman of the Recording Industry Association of American and Dan Glickman, the former Congressman and cabinet secretary who now serves as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Sherman and Glickman, along with the MPAA and RIAA, have successfully “swiftboated” higher education on the issue of P2P – the illegal downloading, “peer to peer,” of digital content. They have continually and successfully portrayed college students as digital pirates and campus officials as unconcerned about and unresponsive to the use of campus networks for the illegal P2P downloading of copyrighted content, specifically movies and music.
Of course, ample data clearly indicate that illegal P2P downloading is a really consumer market problem, not limited to college students and college campuses. For example, college students accounted for less than 4 percent of the more than 8,400 John Doe lawsuits for illegal P2P downloading filed by the RIAA in 2004-25. Data from my annual Campus Computing Survey confirm that the vast majority of colleges and universities have campus policies to address illegal P2P and to inform students about appropriate use issues related to their access to and activities on campus networks. Moreover, colleges and universities are far more conscientious and concerned about illegal P2P activity than are the consumer broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, and TimeWarner, that, at times, implicitly promote P2P downloading as a reason to upgrade to higher speed consumer broadband services.
The latest episode in the MPAA/RIAA swiftboat campaign on P2P unfolded on November 9, via the long awaited legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. Buried in the legislation, now called “The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007,” are Congressional mandates on illegal P2P activity that take dead aim at colleges and universities.
Section 494 of the bill (on page 411 of the 747 page document) offers provisions to address “Campus-Based Digital Piracy.” In current format, the bill would require any college or university participating in federal student financial aid programs -- meaning almost all, from the nation’s elite research universities to local community colleges, as well as the vast majority of for-profit colleges -- (a) to “make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copy-righted materials” and (b) to “develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”
Give them due credit: Glickman and Sherman deserve points for persistence. As drafted, Section 494 reflects the key points Mr. Sherman pressed in a letter to college presidents distributed by the American Council on Education earlier this year: Buy a subscription service and acquire a “technology solution” to deter illegal P2P activity. And yet these provisions are, in essence, extortion: the message to campus officials, initially in Sherman’s letter and now in the provisions of Section 494, is that you can buy your way out of the P2P quagmire.
Rather than address the proliferation of P2P activity in the consumer market, often aided and abetted by consumer broadband service providers, the MPAA and RIAA have opted to focus on college students, campus networks, and college administrators – admittedly easy (and often unsympathetic) targets. In an era of digital media, are consumers understandably confused by the Supreme Court’s 1978 BetaMax decision that said they could use VCRs (and today, by extension, TIVO and similar technologies) to record “over the air” content for personal use? Probably so. But while the real, long-term solution on illegal P2P activity should focus on user education, the MPAA and RIAA apparently feel that legislation offers a quicker remedy.
Glickman and Sherman have successfully moved the Congressional activity on P2P from public hearings to draft legislation. While at face value these three requirements - to inform students and employees about illegal downloading, to develop plans for offering alternatives (i.e. subscription services) to P2P illegal downloading, and to explore technology deterrents -- seem reasonable, they are really the soft glove that hides the steel fist of federal enforcement. The legislation would implicitly require campuses to spend money for music subscription services such as Napster or Ruckus, and also spend significant sums for “technology-based deterrents” to prevent illegal P2P that experts in both the campus community and the corporate sector have deemed ineffective as a solution to address the problem of P2P in both the campus and consumer market.
(Speaking at a June 5 Congressional hearing on illegal P2P downloading, Vance Ikezoye, president Audible Magic, one of the firms that provides a “technology deterrent” for illegal P2P activity, acknowledged that “technology will never be the entire solution [to P2P piracy] … just one of the tools.” Adrian Sannier, CIO at Arizona State University, told members of Congress assembled for the June 5 hearing that his campus had spent approximately $450,000 on P2P technology deterrent software over the past six years. Sannier described P2P as an “arms race.”)
Moreover, the draft legislation authorizes (but does not appropriate) funds, controlled by the secretary of education, “to develop, implement, operate, improve, and disseminate programs of prevention, education, and cost-effective technological solutions, to reduce and eliminate the illegal downloading and distribution of intellectual property.” These grants may also be used for the “support of higher education centers that will provide training, technical assistance, evaluation, dissemination, and associated services and assistance to the higher education community [on matters of P2P piracy] as determined by the Secretary and institutions of higher education.”
Come on! Is this really a top policy priority for the Department of Education? Should the Department really be underwriting campus centers to conduct research and develop user education programs at the behest of the music and movie industries?
In current format Section 494 is, in essence, a set of unfunded federal mandates that will provide substantial subsidies to the music industry and to the firms that claim to offer successful “technology-based deterrents” intended to stem illegal P2P activity on campus networks. Of course the cost of these unfunded mandates will be passed on to students, either as increased tuition or as supplemental student fees. And then Members will, of course, complain loudly about the rising cost of higher education, a concern that forms the underlying premise of the overall Higher Education Act bill!
As drafted, Section 494 reflects the continuing efforts of the MPAA and RIAA to seek Congressional remedy for market shifts. For example, more than a dozen years ago Congress enacted a small tax on blank media –think of blank cassette tapes – because consumers were buying and copying music cassettes, perhaps one for their car, perhaps one for a friend. Note that the music industry did not complain to the manufacturers who, beginning in the mid-1970s, flooded the consumer market with dual deck cassette players. Rather, they went to Congress for redress, remedy, and revenue, rather than pursue other avenues toward resolution.
Interestingly and unfortunately, students have been MIA in the public discussions (or public posturing) about illegal P2P on campus networks. Yes, several surveys of full-time undergraduates confirm that students are in many ways ambivalent, apathetic, or uninformed about copyright and P2P issues. They have come of age with VCRs and TIVO and see little difference between recording a television program and downloading music. This has left college officials in the difficult position of condemning illegal P2P activity on campus networks, while arguing that their institutions should not be required to police this activity or provide the names of students allegedly engaging in illegal P2P downloading.
Students should get involved in this issue. If they are unhappy about the RIAA and MPAA lobbying efforts which would lead to Congressional mandates that could result in increased tuition because of the pass-through costs of subscription services and “technology-based deterrents” intended to stem illegal P2P, they can vote with their wallets. For example, what if students deferred their rush to the multiplex when new movies open each weekend? As it happens, the split in box office revenue between studios/distributors and local exhibitors (the companies that manage the multiplex in the mall) shift over time: distributors/film studios get more of the up-front money (i.e., during the first weeks of a release). So if students deferred their rush to the box office from the opening weekend to the third week, the net revenue (box office) might be the same over time, but they could affect the revenue that goes to the studios.
Illegal P2P downloading is a messy issue. But the swiftboating efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to portray college students as the primary source of digital piracy will not resolve this problem, in either the campus or the consumer markets. Neither will federal mandates that ultimately will mean pass-through costs for students. The long-term solution lies in an aggressive mix of user education and new market models for digital content. The MPAA’s and RIAA’s efforts to secure remedy in the courts and Congress will neither provide resolution nor generate revenue in the market place.
Kenneth C. Green
Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project and a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University.