September 27, 2006

Spellings Commission DOA?

Is the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education dead on arrival? Secretary Spellings's touting it might suggest she'll put some effort into implementing the recommendations, despite David Ward's refusal to sign it and dissent from some of the basic arguments by the AAUP and others. I try to think of the specific recommendations rather than the general environment...

Some of the recommendations truly are DOA, while others are likely to be implemented partially or fully. It's the ones that are most likely to be implemented partially where long-term issues will be interesting to observe:
  • Aligning high school graduation standards to employer and college expectations: Extending NCLB principles to high schools is a nonstarter politically at the moment. Achieve's American Diploma Project is the only infrastructure for this, and I'm not sure if there's much more than lip service in the 22 states that have signed on.
  • Early assessment initiative and information to low-income parents about how to apply for scholarships, etc.: given the attempts of the Bush administration to kill or maim Upward Bound, I'm doubtful there will be anything on this at the federal level for the next 3 years.
  • Reworking NAEP in 12th grade to be a college-readiness measure: no idea, but I suspect the budget's not there for the next few years. (Given that we don't really know what we mean by "college readiness," it would be an arbitrary measure, anyway.)
  • Shifting money from so-called merit-based to need-based aid: Doubtful. Institutions have a far greater incentive in the reputational arena to nab high schoolers with high board scores.
  • Simplifying financial aid forms and application processes: This is the most likely concrete result, since I suspect Spellings can order this without too much fuss. Possible kicker: omitting some questions that might be important to technical considerations of aid. (The practical question here is how much irrationality should be tamped out of the system. Given current parameters, savvy middle-class parents can manipulate their income and how things look. So it's irrational already.)
  • Funding Pell grants to 70% of in-state tuition: not mentioned by Spellings. Probably DOA, given the current budget environment.
  • "Cost control" reporting: Public-university officials will laugh at first at this, since they always have accounting demands of their own states. Then they'll consider the possibility of a second layer of reporting requirements that will have different definitions, on top of their state requirements and how they have to keep track of data for federal indirect-cost negotiations, and... DOA.
  • Easing the transfer of credits: you might have a few states going to a Florida-like uniform system of course titling for public systems, but this recommendation started as a paean to proprietary institutions. In terms of that, DOA. What would make sense is to require that institutions evaluate transfer credits within a certain amount of time after making an admissions decision. Having rolling admissions but batch transcript evaluation isn't appropriate.
  • Using technology to lower costs: Who said that paying Blackboard,, and other companies money will lower costs? DOA.
  • Accreditation and miscellaneous "regulatory" reform: Much of this can't happen without Congressional authorization, and accrediting agencies will have plenty of evidence that they do look at outcomes. DOA.
  • Transparent data on each institution: Spellings can authorize a reconfiguration of IPEDS, but that will have to go through the rule-making process.
  • Unit records database: There isn't the political will to fight the private colleges, and there probably isn't the money for database creation and maintenance. As someone with a demography masters, I'd like to see some data here in terms of entrances and exits from institutions (anonymous is fine), but I suspect it's DOA.
  • "Value-added" measures of what college students learn: It may happen in some state systems, but it's likely to be very low-level information, not complex or nuanced at all. There will be little or no money as incentives. Federal mandate? DOA.
  • Having the National Assessment of Adult Literacy done at 5-year rather than 10-year intervals: definitely possible. This go-round, it was minor ammunition in the discussion of higher education. Thus far, the NAAL staff have failed to respond to my months-old request for disaggregation of data on college graduates by age. I wonder why...
  • Promote innovation to "serve the changing needs of a knowledge economy:" Gee, I guess community colleges have no incentive to have retraining programs at the moment. Pardon my cynicism, but this is the most self-serving rhetoric of the report, because anything colleges and universities do in the next 5 years will be seen (probably inappropriately) as due to the commission report's influence.
  • Changing FIPSE to focus on the priority discussed above: Congress would have to be willing to engage in earmark reform first. DOA.
  • Unspecified help to adults entering/returning to higher ed: Can't tell if it would be DOA. Too vague.
  • More funding of education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields: Probably DOA, though this may protect level funding for areas within NSF.
  • More funding for foreign-language instruction: DOA.
  • Letting STEM graduates from other countries have an expedited path to a green card: DOA.
My personal response to the report and Spellings' digestion of it will appear in another entry sometime in the near future (I hope!). Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on September 27, 2006 11:28 AM |