Sunday, May 21, 2006

Future of Higher Education Is Divisive Topic for Panel

This is a very important piece for all of us in higher education to read very closely in terms of its possible implications. What is proposed below was tried unsuccessfully within the UT system around 5 years ago. Here are some related sources:

UT regents considering standardized testing plan
Testing would be part of system-wide accountability plan
By Ryan D. Pittman

UT Regents consider standardized tests
System officials report need for basic skills testing despite opposition from students and faculty
By Ryan D. Pittman


May 20, 2006
Future of Higher Education Is Divisive Topic for Panel

WASHINGTON, May 19 — At one end of the table was the chairman of Kaplan Inc., complaining that he could not get Kaplan's for-profit, Internet-based law school accredited because it has no law library. At the other end was former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, white-haired and distinguished, pleading for more federal aid for needy students.

The two are members of the Bush administration's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which concluded a two-day meeting here on Friday. And the person keeping them all laughing was Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who suggested that some college students who take six years or more to graduate from college might be too lackadaisical to deserve government aid at all.

"They're climbing rock walls, they're playing, they're drinking — and they're getting Pell grants?" Dr. Vedder said.

The 19 members of the commission represent disparate opinions and interests, and finding common ground is not easy. Refereeing was the chairman, Charles Miller, a private investor and former head of the University of Texas Board of Regents, who wondered aloud how to build consensus among this cacophony of views.

"We may have to duke it out, or have a jump ball," Mr. Miller said.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established the commission last fall to study how to increase access, affordability and accountability in higher education. Its recommendations on these issues could be critically important for the country's 17 million college students and their parents.

In an interview during the meeting, Mr. Miller said he hoped the commission's report would galvanize the Bush administration and Congress to legislate broad reforms in the nation's system for financing and regulating higher education. If it is punchy and well-written, he said, it could be as influential as "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 report commissioned by President Ronald Reagan that inspired a movement for higher standards and accountability in America's 90,000 public schools.

The commission includes representatives of wealthy private colleges, underfinanced public universities, overcrowded community colleges and for-profit trade schools, as well as private industries that want colleges and universities to concentrate on preparing students for the workplace. The members have discussed thorny issues, including how to control skyrocketing tuition, the proper role in higher education of Internet-based classes, and whether government should use its leverage as a provider of billions in federal aid to require private universities to administer standardized tests.

Mr. Miller's frequent mention during the commission proceedings of "A Nation at Risk," which excoriated the sorry state of America's elementary and secondary education, has left some members nervous.

"We've talked in private to him about that," said David Ward, a commission member and president of the American Council on Education, the largest association of colleges and universities. "If he means that 'A Nation at Risk' had a rhetorical flair that got people's attention, that's certainly true. But the pathology of the public schools in the 1980's is not comparable to higher education today. Our colleges and universities are successful — just not successful enough to confront the challenges of globalization without significant change."

After eight months of meetings and hearings, the commission is to begin writing its report, Mr. Miller said, hoping to get it to Ms. Spellings's desk by mid-September.

The members have a congenial working style that has often masked profound differences. Mr. Hunt argued to his colleagues that to help more needy students attend college, the commission must ask for more government money, because Congress will not simply reallocate financial aid away from middle-class families to the poor.

"If you think you're going to go out there and take those tax credits away from middle-class families, you ought to re-enroll in Politics 101," Mr. Hunt said.

Dr. Vedder said in an interview that his priorities were controlling costs and raising productivity.

"If the report argues, front and center at the top, for large increases in government spending on higher education, then some of us will have trouble signing," Dr. Vedder said.

Perhaps the commission's deepest conflict has been about how to measure student learning and compare it across institutions, a goal Mr. Miller has endorsed frequently.

Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that some on the commission would like it to recommend one or several national tests to measure what postsecondary students have learned. Others, Mr. Vest said, would have the commission ask that every institution state its educational goals, and how it will measure progress toward meeting them. Using a single test to compare students at a community college with students at an Ivy League institution would be of little use, he said.

"We mustn't fall into the trap of 'one size fits all,' " Mr. Vest said. "This is a critical moment for this nation. As the forces of change and globalization accelerate, I want this report to be a call to leadership and effectiveness, not an indictment of the current system. There's a difference in tone."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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