Draft Report from Commission on the Future of Higher Education Accuses U.S. Higher Education of Mediocrity

July 10, 2006

Preliminary findings from the Commission on the Future of Higher Education fault U.S. colleges and universities with wasteful spending and a reluctance to create innovative approaches to 21st century education. A recent document released by the commission calls for major changes in financial aid, higher education funding, K-12 outreach, and educational assessment.

When Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched the commission in September 2005, it was charged with developing a comprehensive strategy for postsecondary education that would make the most of national investment in higher ed. A series of shorter reports released earlier this year by Commission Chair Charles Miller made it clear that the commission's recommendations would require a major overhaul of financial aid programs and higher ed spending. The latest release is an early draft of the commission's final report, a version which still lacks conclusions but has already drawn public opposition from higher ed groups and several commission members.

The report finds "equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity" in a national educational system that has become "increasingly risk-averse, frequently self-satisfied, and unduly expensive." Between 1993 and 2003, average tuition and fees at public and private four-year colleges and universities rose 38 percent after adjusting for inflation. The commission associates this rise with the failure of postsecondary institutions to find innovative ways to increase institutional efficiency. Spending on "costly laboratories" and "lavish student dorms" has placed an undue financial burden on the public, as well as individual consumers. The report calls for sweeping changes to U.S. higher education that would create a more transparent and competitive national system.

The current draft denounces what it calls the lack of accountability in higher education. "Beyond lofty vision statements, parents and students have no solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one school than another." Measures of institutional effectiveness would assist policymakers in funding decisions and consumers in assessing the "value-added" from their educational investment. These efforts could also address the growing problem of undergraduate non-completion. Though the proportion of high school graduates who go on to college rose from 52 percent in 1970 to 67 percent in 2004, college completion rates have not kept pace. Transparent data about student outcomes could track student success both before and after graduation.

Several higher education groups have objected to the tone and substance of the report. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (ACE) and a member of the commission, expressed doubt that the group could create a document that accurately and fairly summarized the state of higher education and its challenges in light of the existing draft.

"I believe it [the draft] is seriously flawed and needs significant revision. I am particularly unhappy with the tone and the hostile, almost confrontational way it approaches higher education. Some of the recommendations are also deeply troubling," Ward wrote on the ACE website.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities has issued a similar statement, charging the commission with "ignoring the many ways that colleges and universities across the country are implementing new solutions to these problems. ... We regret that the commission staff has entirely overlooked this emerging body of twenty-first century practice."

Chairman Miller has reiterated that he expects significant edits to the current version of the report. "This is a work in progress, and the lively debate we anticipate will result in a strong report to the Secretary and the nation," Miller wrote in an email accompanying the current draft.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Holding universities and colleges accountable for the success of the students they admit and improving data collection of student persistence in order to allow higher education consumers to evaluate institutional success;
  • Consolidating the 17 federal financial aid and tax benefits programs for students and eliminating the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student aid) by linking the financial aid application process to the federal tax system;
  • Encouraging states to redirect assistance to individual students instead of colleges and universities;
  • Strengthening competitors to traditional four-year institutions, such as community colleges and online university programs, by making it easier to transfer credits;
  • Setting a "bottom line" for college performance that measures institutional costs and educational value, which will allow consumers and policymakers to see institutional results in the areas of academic quality, productivity and efficiency; and,
  • Requiring public colleges and universities to adopt quality-assessment systems to measure student learning, and requiring institutions to publish aggregate data for educational consumers and policymakers.

The current draft of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's report can be found at: http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports.html.