Historic report could reform Higher Education Act

Some professors say the report is asking for unrealistic changes.
Monday, September 18, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:20 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

All colleges and universities are not created equal. But according to a draft of a historic report from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, all institutes of higher education should be treated the same.

The much-anticipated report, scheduled for release in its final form next week, is aimed at possible reform of the Higher Education Act, the major law that governs federal student aid. The report advocates improving higher education’s accessibility, affordability, accountability and quality.

Higher education experts and others agree with that part of the report. What they don’t agree with is how improvements in all the relevant areas will be measured.

“To lump everyone together in one type of measure is troubling to me,” said Vicki Rosser, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at MU.

Rosser said accessibility is easy to measure, but the three other goals will be more difficult to measure when all universities and colleges are treated equally.

For example, Rosser said, the draft report recommends a standardized test to measure students’ performance after lower-level general education requirements are completed.

“So what do we do with those that fail it?” Rosser said. “Do we fail them? Do we tell them they can’t graduate, but they may have gotten B’s and C’s? Not every student tracks through the same way.”

Rosser and Barbara Townsend, who is also a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at MU, said they worry about how the testing would be implemented and who would pay for it — concerns that echo the debate over the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

“I can see them mandate this and not fund it,” Rosser said. “And then we have to fund it with our already diminishing funding coming from the state, and I’m not happy with that.”

Townsend said the report assumes that higher education is now a “right and not a privilege,” which has serious implications for how policy makers and educators define quality in higher education.

The draft report also suggests that the purpose of higher education is to create a workforce to further American capitalism and free enterprise — a notion that Rosser and Townsend agree with in part. However, Rosser said universities should “educate the whole person.”

Although it’s not clear the proposed reforms would have any impact on private colleges, Wendy Libby, president of Stephens College, said the idea that college should be concerned primarily with job placement is troublesome.

“Most college presidents wouldn’t say that,” Libby said. “They want students to leave being well educated, to be part of the workforce, if they desire to be. A small college like Stephens believes in educating the whole person for a life of good health, a life of being good citizens, and that’s more important than preparing for a particular job.”

Rosser and Townsend said they both appreciate the report’s emphasis on increasing accessibility and the need for colleges and universities to offer more financial aid to students.

But, the report does not consider the complexity of higher education, said MU Provost Brian Foster. He also said the commission’s draft recommendations are too simplistic.

“It doesn’t work,” Foster said. “That’s the problem with the Spellings commission. They try to talk about higher education as if all of the different kinds of higher education were the same. You can’t do that.”

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