A Call for a Higher Education Summit

Arthur Levine writes that colleges could easily miss an opportunity offered by the presidential transition, but that the right kind of conclave could make this a constructive moment for tackling key issues.

December 22, 2008

A new national report card released earlier this month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reveals that the nation is not making enough progress on college affordability -- and needs more concerted action from universities and state policymakers. Nearly all states have received grades of F in this area since 2000. This report is a harbinger of a looming stalemate on higher education for the nation’s young people, one that demands quick attention.

In the course of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said his administration would invest in higher education to ensure access and affordability, as well as support research, economic development, and international competitiveness.

With colleges and universities, more than ever, driving our economy and providing the key to our children’s future, these would be critical investments for the nation. But the Obama administration is unlikely to be able to make them, at least in the near term. Other priorities -- the bailouts, declining tax revenues, two wars, health care, energy sustainability, the soaring deficit -- will consume federal resources. Even if the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Corporation and others garner a share of the economic stimulus package for campus facilities and student aid, as they have recently proposed, such funding will scarcely make a dent in the larger needs that directly affect access and affordability.

One can imagine the consequences. Unable to fund its higher education agenda, Washington will pressure the states to assume responsibility for college access and affordability. After all, responsibility for education is constitutionally assigned to the states. As a meeting of the National Governors Association earlier this month made plain, however, the states are also confronting major deficits, with sharp revenue declines and the rising costs of social programs that seek to respond to the recession. They will not only be unable to make additional investments in higher education, but will be forced to make cuts, since education is a principal item in state budgets.

Both Washington and the state capitols are then likely to turn to institutions of higher education to carry out the President-elect’s unfunded agenda of promoting economic growth through innovation and training. But colleges and universities will also be unable to carry the water. They are facing the same realities as government as they grapple with declining endowments, increased student financial aid needs, reduced government support, and diminished giving by donors.

Because colleges and universities will have difficulty responding, government may well assume that they are unwilling or unable to carry out the desired agenda--particularly the twin goals of increasing access for students from underrepresented groups and keeping tuition affordable for all families, as tuition levels rise out of reach of a growing number of families. The predictable response: hearings, demands for greater efficiency, calls for improved accountability, and perhaps increased regulation, like that imposed on the health care industry.

The most likely outcome of such a situation: finger-pointing, with the federal government decrying inaction by the states and universities, the states laying the blame at the feet of Washington and higher education, and institutions of higher education decrying the unreasonable demands and inadequate support of government at all levels. If this happens -- and without intervention it surely will -- our country and our children will be the big losers.

But this outcome is by no means inevitable. To avert this stalemate, President Obama could convene a summit, bringing together Washington, the states, and colleges and universities to triage the higher education goals he championed during the campaign -- and to focus particularly on access and affordability, which are of greatest concern to the largest numbers of ordinary Americans.

Attendees for the summit should represent the full breadth of higher education -- two-year and four-year and doctoral institutions, state-supported and independent -- as well as the executive and legislative branches of the federal government and the key state education leaders, including governors and state higher education officers. That said, this has to be a select, influential group with the power to effect real change -- no more than five per side.

These leaders should examine the real resources available to higher education, not as fat juicy pork but as basic sustenance for the key issues: access and affordability, research, economic development, and global competitiveness. The summit should be structured in three parts: first, a one-day gathering to identify key issues and priorities; second, a one-month period for a staff working group to develop and provide options; and third, a final one- or two-day meeting to reach conclusions.

The outcome of this gathering must go beyond rhetoric. The three sectors must agree to a practical, achievable contract that outlines specific roles for each sector. And all this should happen in the first 100 days of the Obama administration, before revenues are otherwise committed.

Such a meeting of minds would render an essential service to the nation and our children. Without it, the resulting gridlock will serve only to deny access to education and opportunity to more and more of our nation’s students -- and thereby prolong both our current economic spiral and the longer-term cycle of poverty.


Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.


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