March 4, 2006

Spellings commission chat

This morning I'm in the heart of Disney at the joint NEA/AFT higher education summit. In contrast with last weekend, I really only need three extra days this weekend to get things done (I wanted six extra days last weekend), but I'm here. And before I exercise and head out to today's sessions (no, I'm not doing the Disney Thing—I grew up 30 minutes from Disneyland and Did That quite enough, thank you), I'll cut and paste my notes from a session yesterday afternoon on the Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education (i.e., the Spellings Commission). Brave enough to come present and listen to all the commentary was Vickie Schray, the deputy director for management and planning for the commission (in other words, one of the two or three staff members who will probably be really writing the report)...

My operating assumption is that she's talking to groups right now to try out different rhetorical points, and there were a variety of themes in the ones she used yesterday:

  • Human capital requirements. “Industry partners” tell the commission staff that higher education is the key and engine to innovation, which drives the economy. The comparisons in the talk were to South Korea (which graduates as many engineers as the U.S., she said) and India.
  • Student change: age. Another emphasis is demographic change, to “non-traditional” students
  • Student change: mobility. Students who transfer frequently between institutions are not being served well.
  • Affordability: source. “Cost” was the keyword used. “The cost of higher education is outpacing inflation.” Here, she clearly meant tuition.
  • Affordability: consequences. She spoke about the debt burden of graduates.
  • Affordability: support. Here, Schray spoke about many adult learners’ ineligibility for financial assistance.
  • Accountability. “I can’t say that we have a higher-education system in the United States—we don’t have a system.” ACE pres calls it a mosaic. “And that’s not necessarily a flaw. It was designed that way.” “Every year, we provide… hundreds of billions [sic] of dollars annually to higher ed, and from the federal perspective—we provide a third of that money—we know less on the return on that investment than any other investment.”
  • Consumer rights: information. For parents and students, she said, it’s difficult to get one's hands on information and to understand it.
  • Disappointing evidence about outcomes. Here, she cited the recently-published results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The panel had three respondents:

  • Barmak Nassirian, Assoc. Exec. Dir., External Relations, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, made a few general remarks. Commissions can break from the status quo rhetoric, but they may not be able to grapple with the scale and end with platitudes. He then turned to for-profit entities, and said that the most salient feature (and danger) of a quarter-century of waste, fraud, and abuse. There needs to be regulation of the financing system, because right now it’s run on an honor code, which encourages predatory practices. The largest expense is not typically for teachers. His concern about the commission is that it has omitted that record. “We don’t do a good enough job protecting our most vulnerable taxpayers” from the predatory practices of for-profit institutions. Later in the panel, Nassirian followed up and argued that one problem with aggregating credits (addressing the student-transfer issue) is that transcripts are like unaudited financial statements. The only way to assure that is to have faculty governance, he said. In for-profit higher ed, the at-will nature of employment “is held out to be a virtue, … and I say to you, … education is a process. It is habits of the mind.” A serious danger with HEA reauthorization is the federalization of transfer of credit. “Someone who took a course twice has been ripped off, but it may have been the first time.”
  • Ken Buckman, a philosopher at U.T. Pan-American, spoke next. Buckman is concerned that the direction of the commission’s work had predetermined that standardized testing was necessary in higher education. But such a consensus doesn’t appear to be coming from faculty or students. Everyone is concerned with critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving. “Embedded in the question of standardization,” he said, “is, ‘what is the nature of the academy?’” Buckman saw assumptions that focused on standardization, business-like, etc. What is lost, Buckman said, is the fact that education is a process. “Philosophy is a hard sell,” he said, because “many people look for Wal-Mart outcomes. But in philosophy, what you get out of philosophy isn’t the point. It’s what it does to you.” There are already standardized tests in Texas, he noted—TAAS and TAKS do not reflect what really happens in students’ heads.
  • Sandra Schroeder, an AFT VP (and president of the Washington Federation of Teachers), asked that the commission address the academic staffing crisis in higher education. The commission addressed many things but not the proportion of faculty who are contingent. Part-time and adjunct faculty have increased by 130%, while full-time regular faculty grew about 20-something%. Nationwide, about 540,000 of 1.2 million faculty are part-time. In community and technical colleges, the majority are contingent faculty. Nationally, part-timers earn $2200 per course, tenure-line faculty earn about $5300 per course, while tenured faculty earn on average $7800 per course. There are both human consequences of that enforced poverty and real educational consequences with an institution relies on part-time and contingent faculty.

(I am shrinking down their comments dramatically, but I think I got the gist.) Then there was a long set of questions and comments from the audience. Most were critical of the commission's work, or what they thought the commission's work was, and Schray repeatedly said that nothing had been predetermined with the commission, that the commission's work is still in flux, and that the commission's and staff's current task is working on "problem statements." So I think I was right in seeing what she was doing in the initial presentation.

In the general-audience discussion, I spoke for about ten seconds and made two points: to talk about higher-education inflation without pointing out the difference between expenditures and tuition is highly misleading, because the reason for the tuition hikes over the past few decades is the public disinvestment in higher education. I suspect that the expenditures per student in the majority of institutions have been below the general inflation rate (anyone know the details on this?). The second was that the National Assessment of Adult Literacy may be a decent snapshot of the country, but given the changes in the age distribution of students, you can't make any trend conclusions unless you disaggregate by age. I had the impression that the survey didn't collect age data (something that seemed odd to me), perhaps because neither the report nor the coverage mentioned disaggregation by age. But fortunately my impression is wrong. Someone can disaggregate by age (and institutional characteristics) with the NAAL data files, and someone should. Update (3/5): I've requested disaggregation for college student scores by sex and age interval via the table request form, and with luck NAAL staff will respond promptly.

In general, it was a civil and largely substantive discussion. I heard quite a few cynical comments in the audience afterwards about Schray's claim that the conclusions hadn't been predetermined, but most credited her with panache, poise, and courage for coming to a forum where she knew the commission's work (based largely on the public reporting) would be criticized. She gave out a basic fact sheet and her business card, and I'm sure she'll be receiving plenty of e-mail as a result of the session.

Today, I'll attend a session on national security and higher education with Ellen Schrecker as a presenter, as well as a session where Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, will be speaking. That should be fun.

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Posted in Education policy on March 4, 2006 7:51 AM |