Nation & World
A Federal Fix for Higher Ed?
Long an engine of technological, social, and scientific progress, American higher education is in many ways the envy of the world. Or is it? A slew of reports in recent years have warned that the country's universities are declining in international competitiveness and may fall further as modern colleges in China, for example, reach maturity.
Last week, the Department of Education echoed that alarm. "Among the vast and varied institutions that make up U.S. higher education, we have found much to applaud but also much that requires urgent reform," concludes a report released last week that was commissioned by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The problems the report cites-stratospheric costs to students, declining accessibility, and limited accountability-are serious enough that the Department of Education is now considering taking an unprecedented role in regulating higher learning.
The so-called Spellings Commission Report was controversial even in draft form for its scolding tone. (In "U.S. higher education, we have found equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity," the draft report said.) This Tuesday, Spellings is expected to announce plans to put the commission's recommendations to work. These include: simplifying the financial aid system; increasing emphasis on need-based financial aid; targeting federal investment in subjects like math and science; and cultivating a "robust culture of accountability and transparency."
That accountability has many higher ed hands wringing with the fear that it might mean an expansion of No Child Left Behind-style standardized testing to the country's undergrads. "Standardized testing for the country's 20-year-olds would be a very blunt instrument for achieving accountability, and it would be wildly unpopular with parents and students," says David Ward, president of the American Council of Education and the only member of the commission not to sign the report. Despite widespread fears in the academic community, Education Department officials tell U.S. News that standardized testing for undergraduates is not under consideration, and there is no mention of testing in the report.
Tracking progress. But educators and the commission both see outcome measures as critical to reform. "The government collects and distributes a tremendous amount of money both in the form of research grants and student financial aid, so it's not unreasonable to want to know what that money is buying," says commission Chairman Charles Miller.
One controversial solution discussed in the report involves creating a database-with the requisite privacy protections-to track students as they pass through the higher ed pipeline. It would allow policymakers and educators to learn, for example, why 37 percent of all college students drop out before they earn their degrees. It is likely, department officials say, that any such accountability and tracking schemes would be run by individual states, rather than through a federal database.
While few disagree with the problems highlighted by the report, even fewer agree on the solutions or the ability and willingness of the higher ed community to reform itself. The opening salvos of a voluntary reform movement may have been fired this month, when Harvard dropped its early admissions program over concerns it cut socioeconomic diversity on campus; Princeton followed suit one week later. And Columbia University announced that, like Princeton and Harvard, it will abolish student loans for families making less than $50,000 per year, offering grants instead. But these are special cases-schools that are very wealthy and very selective, unlike most of their 2,000 peers around the country. Harvard has an endowment of more than $25 billion (roughly the gross domestic product of Bolivia) and is not lacking in applicants. Community colleges struggling to meet their operating costs in the face of state budget cuts face a much different set of reform challenges.
In the end, all efforts at governmental reform of higher education depend on public and legislative support-something that Congress has been reluctant to pursue. The Higher Education Reauthorization Act has made the rounds on Capitol Hill since 2003, yet it remains unfinished legislative business.
It is likely that action on the Spellings Report will have to wait until after the next Congress is elected in November. And any debate over solutions, such as the balance of state vs. federal accountability oversight, could extend into the next presidential election. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are eager to hear this week exactly how Spellings intends to move forward.
This story appears in the October 2, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.