Dialogue sought on higher education

RALEIGH — The U.S. Department of Education has appointed a commission that will engage in what U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings termed a “national dialogue” about the role of higher education in the 21st century. The 18-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education, including professors, university presidents, business leaders and government officials, will release a report next year.

Spellings said she hopes the commission will not only find ways to improve higher education but also ways for higher education to meet the needs of an increasingly global economy. The commission is expected to release its recommendations to the public in August.

The commission has already met once, in October, and held its second meeting on Dec. 8, 9 in Nashville, Tenn. Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt is a member of the commission.

During the first meeting, Spellings outlined the charge for the commission and what she expected over the next several months as the membership works toward a future for higher education. The questions Spellings wants answered in the report include how accessible is higher education, why the cost is rising so rapidly, and how well are institutions preparing students for the workforce.

“It’s time to examine how we can maximize our investment in higher education, including our federal dollars,” Spellings said. “We all have a responsibility to make sure our higher education system continues to spur innovation and economic growth and gives more Americans the chance to succeed in the new knowledge economy.”

Unlike K-12 education, Spellings said, few studies exist about the quality of higher education. She also said many people do not pay attention to how taxpayer money is being spent at colleges and universities.

“And as a result, we’re missing valuable information on how the system works today and what can be improved,” Spellings said. “For instance, at the U.S. Department of Education, we can tell you almost anything you want to know about first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, non-transfer students. The trouble is that over half of today’s college students are nontraditional students.”

Charles Miller, a private investor who is the former chairman of the University of Texas system’s Board of Regents, is leading the commission. Two university presidents — Charlene Nunley of Montgomery College and Robert Mendenhall of Western Governors University — also serve on the commission.

Nunley cochaired a committee that reported to the Maryland General Assembly in November 2003 about accessibility issues in higher education in the state. The paper, “At risk: Access in Higher Education,” in general addresses increased enrollment demands at institutions, capacity issues, affordability, and statewide issues in Maryland. In the report, the committee recommended that Maryland make need-based financial aid a priority, as well as supporting capital needs projects at institutions among other recommendations.

“Maryland, like other states across the country, must confront a very difficult public policy issue — how do we accommodate a growing number of students who want to attend a public institution of higher education,” the report says. “The current capacity of our institutions is already stretched. As this [Joint Chairmen’s Report] Report reveals, any methodology used to predict future demand leads to the same conclusion — unless steps are taken to address the problem, Maryland will end up excluding a large number of students or will be unable to serve these students in the way they need to be served.”

Also on the committee is Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who was written about the high costs of higher education in his book Going Broke By Degree, where he outlines some of the reasons why he thinks higher education costs have soared. Vedder was also the keynote speaker at the Pope Center Conference in October.

“…[S]o I am pondering with renewed intensity issues relating to our system of colleges and universities,” Vedder said at the recent Pope Center Conference about his appointment to the commission.

Shannon Blosser (sblosser@popecenter.org) is a staff writer at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.