Educators Cast a Wary Eye at U.S. Panel
by: KELLY FIELD
The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 14, 2005, Friday
SECTION: GOVERNMENT & POLITICS; Pg. 1
When the 19 members of the Education Department's new commission on higher education meet for the first time next week, the watchful and somewhat wary eye of academe will be upon them.
While advocates are delighted that the administration is at last turning its attention from elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, some say they worry that the panel's work will increase federal intrusion into higher education.
Others are concerned about the makeup of the commission, which is led by a private investor and includes five top corporate executives, but has only three faculty members and no students. Those higher-education advocates fear that the panel will be dominated by business leaders who will try to control what colleges teach, and several are lobbying to have students and more academics included on the commission.
"The student perspective is extremely critical if we are to truly examine and explore the higher-education system," says Jasmine L. Harris, legislative director of the United States Student Association.
But the biggest question may be "Why now?"
Even some former administration officials were surprised by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' announcement last month that she had created a commission to develop a "comprehensive national strategy" on higher education.
The department had considered such a commission in President Bush's first term, when Roderick R. Paige was secretary, but it abandoned the idea because the U.S. House of Representatives was already so far along in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law that governs most student-aid programs. Several former administration officials and higher-education lobbyists wonder why the administration would revive the plan at a time when the bill has advanced even further.
"It is somewhat ironic that it's being formed now," says Eugene W. Hickok, who stepped down as deputy secretary in the U.S. Education Department in December. "In terms of influencing the higher-education process, it seems pretty slow to the gate."
The Education Department says the commission's main focus is not the reauthorization, but bigger-picture issues like access, affordability, accountability, and work-force preparedness.
"The commission will be taking a much broader and more futuristic look at where the country needs to be 10 and 20 years from now," says a department spokeswoman, Samara Yudof.
The timing may also be a sign that the president is finally looking to leave his mark on higher education. The administration is now a year into its second term, leaving it only three years to shape postsecondary policy.
"They're starting to think in terms of legacy because that's what you do at this point in your term," says Travis J. Reindl, director of state-policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Many higher-education advocates are thrilled that the administration is turning to higher education, however belatedly and whatever the reason.
"There is a real need for the country to take stock of itself and where it needs to go in higher education, and this commission seems to be a promising vehicle for having that discussion," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
An Eclectic Group
The last time the federal government convened a commission on higher education, in 1997, members of Congress stacked the panel with college administrators and presidents of higher-education associations.
Not so with the secretary's commission, which in addition to four presidents emeritus, three professors, and an association president, includes five executives from such corporate giants as Microsoft, the Boeing Company, and IBM. The head of the panel, Charles Miller, is a private investor who was chairman of the University of Texas System's Board of Regents.
Two members served under the first President Bush: Arthur J. Rothkopf, as deputy secretary for the Department of Transportation, and Louis W. Sullivan, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Another, Arturo Madrid, was director of the Fund for the Improvement for Postsecondary Education under President Jimmy Carter.
Because the new panel is less insular than its predecessor, many observers expect it to propose bolder changes than the cost commission of the late 1990s did. That commission was forced to redraft its report after House Republicans said the original was too sympathetic to colleges.
Victor F. Klatt, a former House Republican aide who once accused members of the cost commission of being "lackeys for the higher-education associations," says the secretary was wise to include business leaders this time around. "They have a very different perspective than the higher-education community, and I think they can bring a fresh look to some of the issues that higher-education folks grapple with," he says.
But some academics worry that the business leaders will try to shape colleges' curricula to meet their work-force needs.
"This panel looks like it's poised to move us away from a concentration on comprehensive education and toward a concentration on training for big business," says Ruth Flower, director of the office of public policy and communications at the American Association of University Professors.
Accent on Accountability
So far, the secretary has defined the commission's task in the broadest of terms, saying that it will tackle such global issues as access, affordability, accountability, and productivity. In a one-page letter to its members, she also spoke of the need to ensure that higher education keeps pace with the changing economy.
A Federal Register notice on the commission provided a few more details, saying the panel would examine how colleges can serve minority students better, promote lifelong learning, produce more mathematics and science majors, and prepare students for the global economy. The commission, the notice said, would "analyze whether the current goals of higher education are appropriate and achievable."
Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University and a panel member, says it looks like the commission "has a good bit of latitude."
Still, if the chairman's past work is any indication, a major focus of the panel will be accountability. Mr. Miller has been promoting that concept since the late 1980s, when he chaired a Texas task force that developed a state accountability program that became a model for the No Child Left Behind Act.
As a member and later chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents from 1994 to 2004, he proposed new reporting requirements for the nine undergraduate colleges in the system and endorsed testing for all freshmen and seniors. The reporting system went statewide last year, and a test of students' analytical and verbal skills is now in the pilot stage.
And when he testified before Congress in 2003, Mr. Miller suggested that colleges test students in their first two years "to measure student learning at the undergraduate level across institutions."
"I don't have a middle name, but if I did, it would probably be accountability," Mr. Miller says.
The chairman insists he is not out to regulate colleges, but only to hold them accountable to taxpayers. He says policy makers and parents alike need better information about how colleges are performing. "I believe in giving institutions the maximum freedom to operate themselves," he says, "but we do want to see what the results are."
Still, Mr. Miller's emphasis on accountability alarms some academics, who fear that he will try to expand President Bush's signature education law to apply to colleges. "I just hope this doesn't result in No College Student Left Behind," says Michael A. Olivas, director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston.
Is Consensus Possible?
The other 18 members of the commission come to the table with a variety of ideas about how to improve higher education. At least three — Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Madrid, along with Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College, in Maryland — say they will focus on improving the college-attendance rates of minority and low-income students.
"Somehow, we have to make higher education affordable for a majority of citizens. We can't just restrict it to the rich and upper-middle class," says Mr. Madrid. "Student aid has not kept pace with the rising cost of college."
But any effort to increase federal spending on student aid is likely to be met with resistance from Mr. Vedder, who has argued that financial aid drives up college tuition.
Business leaders are expected to call for a greater emphasis on preparing students for the work force. Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration at the Boeing Company, says he hopes to influence the courses colleges teach.
"Colleges need to recognize that they have a dual role" — to increase knowledge and to provide marketable skills, he says. "Some schools need to be taking a hard look at their curriculum and taking into account business expectations."
Meanwhile, Robert W. Mendenhall, president of the online nonprofit institution Western Governors University, is expected to lobby for loosening federal restrictions on online learning, while James B. Hunt Jr., a former Democratic governor of North Carolina, may talk about teacher training.
Given this diversity of priorities — and perspectives — some observers wonder whether the members will be able to reach consensus on a vision for the future of higher education by the August 1 deadline set by the secretary. But Mr. Miller is confident that they can.
"At the end of the day, I don't think we'll be that far apart. I think we'll reach consensus on some of this stuff," he says. "And if we can't, the public will have at least have heard the discussion. We will have some fierce arguments, and I'd love that."