Winter 2007 Journal: Higher Ed and Washington

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BOSTON— The Winter 2007 issue of Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education features exclusive articles by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and others on the work of the national Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

In September 2006, the commission, appointed by Spellings one year earlier, issued its final report titled “A Test of Leadership,” which contains a range of recommendations on higher education access, affordability, quality and accountability.

Not since 1983’s “A Nation at Risk” had a government report on education been so anticipated, if not necessarily welcomed.

“A Test of Leadership” recommends steps to make college more affordable and to better align high school curricula with higher education’s expectations. More controversially, the report supports college-level standardized testing and calls for a national “unit-record” database to track student progress and institutional performance.

Now in its 21st year, Connection is the journal of the nonprofit New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE)—and America’s only regional journal on higher education and the economy.

The Winter 2007 Connection features the following articles:

Time for Action to Bolster Future of Higher Education • U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings describes how the national Commission on the Future of Higher Education could affect college access, affordability, quality and accountability in New England—and offers clues as to which of the commission’s recommendations will form the department’s higher ed agenda.

To Strengthen Higher Education, Boost Pell Grants, End Waste in Private Loan Programs • U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy praises the commission’s call to increase the average Pell Grant to cover 70 percent of the typical tuition at a four-year public college, up from the current 48 percent—a recommendation that has been omitted from the higher education agenda Secretary Spellings has built from the commission report. Kennedy also calls for an end to “the outrageous waste” in federal student loan programs and a new guarantee for college-bound students. The incoming chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee writes: “All young students in America should be offered contracts when they reach eighth grade, making clear that if they work hard, finish high school and are accepted to college, we will guarantee them a grant that covers the cost of earning a degree.”

Commission Report Should Prompt a Re-examination of New England Higher Education • Recently retired Nellie Mae Education Foundation President Blenda J. Wilson examines the commission’s emphasis on making colleges and universities more transparent about cost, price and student success. The panel’s call for a “value added” form of evaluation and public reporting for colleges, based more on judgments about what students learn while they’re in college than what they know when they enter, “would be a new and potentially demanding standard for a region whose reputation as a higher education leader has rested on the prestige of some highly selective private institutions thought to admit the ‘best and the brightest,’” writes Wilson.

Could Transparency Bring Economic Diversity?Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation, suggests that the commission’s call for transparency could offer a clearer picture of how well colleges do reaching out to lower- and moderate-income students. Kahlenberg cites research showing that students from the bottom 25 percent of the U.S. population socioeconomically account for just 3 percent of students at the nation’s most selective 146 colleges—they’re underrepresented by a factor of eight! “Economic differences among students are less obvious to the naked eye than racial differences, and as a society, we are less accustomed to talking about addressing class inequality,” writes Kahlenberg. More information is needed, he says, so the public knows “not only how many students are white, black, Asian or Latino at UCLA or Princeton, but also how many are poor, lower middle-class, upper middle-class or wealthy. What percentage are first-generation college-goers? What percentage come from single-parent households?”

As Student Debt Increases, Colleges Owe More in Performance • Economist Bridget Terry Long of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Dana Ansel, director of research at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, warn that the current debate over whether the value of a college degree justifies increasing levels of student loan debt obscures a critical point: many students take on debt but then leave college without earning a degree. These dropouts, the authors note, may be left with heavy debt but do not enjoy the job-market advantages and earnings premiums associated with earning a college degree. “Growing expectations that students will incur debt to pay for their educations must be met with increased information about what students are buying,” Long and Ansel conclude.

Test the Spellings Commission’s Assumptions • The future of New England higher education will be shaped as much by regional challenges as it will be by any national commission’s prescriptions for accessibility and affordability, writes Tunxis Community College President Cathryn L. Addy. Noting that the national Commission on the Future of Higher Education focuses significantly on the economic value of higher education, Addy writes: “Indeed students want a ‘reward’ from college education and training. They want their college credential to open up new opportunities. So why should young people go to college in a region where at the end of the line they will find fewer jobs that pay them enough to keep up with the region’s monstrous cost of living?”

Resist Simplistic Measures of Success • University of Massachusetts System President Jack M. Wilson warns that metrics cited by the commission to measure college success “could actually lead to much lower accessibility, affordability and completion.” The old model of the 18-year-old going to one college and staying there through graduation is no longer the norm, explains Wilson. “The typical student today attends two or more institutions before graduating. Yet ‘graduation rates’ are a measure of the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen graduating in five or six years. The typical student today cannot possibly meet this old fashioned metric of success. Worse, if such a metric were to become the standard for enforcement and funding, one must expect that colleges and universities would reduce their intake of transfer students, community colleges would try to avoid having students transfer to other institutions prior to finishing an associate degree, older students and part-time students would find reduced opportunities and there would be fewer continuing education and on-line degree programs.”

How Open-Source Curricula Could Bridge the Education Divide • Education technology pioneer Barbara Kurshan describes how new “open-source curricula” could provide educational opportunity for urban schools in the United States, developing countries and other areas where poverty and lack of resources create an “Education Divide.” The idea is derived from the phenomenon of open-source software … since the software’s code is not proprietary, its users are free to modify and improve it as necessary. In the case of educational curriculum, writes Kurshan, “a leading authority in mathematics [could] create an e-book and post it to an online repository. From there, a global population would be able to access it and create a customized textbook to meet their individual interests.”

An Education Mandate for New England Governors • New Englanders face two daunting barriers to college: many are simply not prepared for college academically or otherwise, and many cannot afford the high price tag—or think they can’t. NEBHE President and CEO Evan S. Dobelle offers a range of concrete regional strategies that the six New England governors could pursue together to tackle the twin problems of lagging college readiness and affordability.

Global Student Marketplace • NEBHE Chair and former four-term Maine state Sen. Mary R. Cathcart offers a thumbnail sketch of the new global environmental in which New England higher education is operating.

Editor’s Memo • Connection Executive Editor John O. Harney observes that the national Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s call for transparency could “find legs as the public tires of secrecy all around,” but wonders if the new openness should be extended beyond much talked about graduation rates and employment prospects to other aspects of campus operations ranging from endowment spending to deals with corporate vendors.


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