Higher ed commission to examine U.S. schools

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A commission recently formed by Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of education, will look to develop a national strategy by Aug. 1 of next year for postsecondary education that will meet the needs of the U.S. workforce and the economic and business worlds.

Spellings met with commission members on Oct. 17 in Washington to discuss plans for the commission. She said in a statement that the Future of Higher Education Commission is in the public’s interest because higher education must meet the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education.

The 19-member commission will investigate student access to higher education, college fees, and how well K-12 schools train students for higher education.

The commission will attempt to engage students and families, policymakers, business leaders and the academic community, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Even though the commission has made its goals clear, officials have not revealed to the public how they are going to reach those goals.

“Hopefully, we will address the most pressing issues in higher education,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust and member of the commission.

Haycock established two higher education issues she is particularly concerned with.

“One is access to higher education and affordability,” she said. “I mean that specifically for low-income kids and kids of color.”

College fees are rising and so is the number of children of color, Haycock said.

She said she is equally concerned with the low graduation rates of students of color and low-income students.

“I think the institutions (U.S. universities) feel little responsibility,” she said.

College institutions can work with students who change their majors to encourage them to continue their education and still graduate, Haycock said.

She said she feels that the K-12 system is somewhat responsible for the low number of minority and low-income college graduates.

“(The K-12 system) is not yet stepping up and preparing students for college, and in this economy, you need to,” Haycock said.

She said that even students who are well prepared and do not have difficulty while they are in college are not graduating in large enough numbers.

“I don’t want to be specific in advance because it’s something that the commission needs to get together,” Haycock said in regards to discussing the strategies the commission will use to attain its goals.

Dorena Knepper, director of governmental affairs at CSUN, said she is hopeful, yet remains skeptical about Spellings’ choice of commission members.

“I have a problem with who’s on it (the commission),” Knepper said. “There are no students. No one from the west. It’s a very eclectic group.”

“First of all, (Spellings) has given (the commission) a very short timeframe. It’s very ambitious. You have representatives from online and for-profit institutions. They’re urging experimentation. Then you have more traditional representatives that are advocating for minority students. Then you have corporate leaders.”

Knepper said Spellings asked the commission to focus on four critical points in higher education: accessibility, affordability, accountability and quality.

“Given how eclectic the membership is, they are all coming from different perspectives. Her four areas are going to be a real challenge,” she said.

According to Knepper, Spellings also described four major points in history that changed the course of U.S. education. She said the first was President Abraham Lincoln’s Morrill Act of 1862, in which each state was given land to build educational institutions for white Americans. A second Morrill Act allowed blacks into higher education institutions. The second was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 G.I. Bill, which gave educational assistance for veterans of WWII.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and Eisenhower signed legislation to enhance the nation’s math and science education. The United States was alarmed at how the Soviet Union arrived to space before they did and acted accordingly, Knepper said.

“I remember how shocked everybody was,” she said. “They said, ‘Why aren’t we at the forefront of that?'”

Lastly, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Higher Education Act of 1965, which established federal financial aid for American colleges and students.

“I just mentioned four redwoods,” Knepper said. “I certainly don’t see this commission anywhere near stature to these landmarks.”

She said the time the commission is allotted would produce a challenge for its members.

“Ten months is a very fast track particularly in – academics. Businessmen tend to see the bottom line faster,” Knepper said.

Knepper still recognizes the need for advancement in U.S. education.

“I do think that the world is catching up with us increasingly because of high technology,” she said. “Other countries are catching up to us. We better have something like this, or we’re going to fall behind.”

Accordingly, Haycock said she believes the country is falling behind some others in education.

“If you look internationally, the U.S. is at flat college results,” she said. “We are no longer first in either college attendance or college graduation.”

Knepper said some members of the commission are interested in getting more minority students into higher education institutions.

“I think the overarching issue is how to ensure that this country remains a world leader in innovation and research, something that we’ve always enjoyed,” she said. “We need to pay more attention to that.”

Knepper said she was concerned about the makeup of the commission not only because of the absence of students, but also the clear absence of representatives from the West Coast.

“When you’re putting together a commission of this size, you need to look at all the parts of the country you are representing, and I just don’t think they are,” she said.

Philip Rusche, dean of the College of Education, said he heard about the creation of the commission and knows about its goals, but cannot predict if the members will succeed.

“That’s always hard to say until we can see the agenda and direction they want to move in,” he said. “It’s an interesting thing they put together. They are talking about the right issues.”

Rusche discussed, however, the importance of having more information from the commission as far as how the members are planning to actually reach their goals.

“We need a road map before we can start driving, and they haven’t given us that,” he said.

Rusche said that whenever a commission or task force is created, representatives of people involved in the topic must be included. He said he believed that the commission should add students to the panel.

“It wouldn’t hurt. They are also consumers of higher education,” Rusche said. “All those that are involved should be involved in constituent way.”

Haycock said having a student on the commission would have been a good idea for group officials.

“I suppose the commission could solicit (student input),” she said. “I really don’t know how they’re organizing or what their plans are.”

Haycock said it is too early to tell if the commission will succeed, but she remains positive. She said there are four more meetings scheduled before the commission finishes its work, and information from those meetings will be released in a public report.

Clara Potes-Fellow, spokesperson for the CSU, said the commission is facing an ambitious agenda.

“The commission is charged with examining issues that matter tremendously to the CSU and the nation,” Potes-Fellow said.

She said she hopes the commission will obtain useful information from sources as it holds its meetings.

Potes-Fellow said the CSU executives and presidents are working with minority leaders in the community to try and investigate the low numbe
rs of minority students in colleges, and the low numbers graduating college.

“We need to educate parents of middle-school children about how to get them into college,” she said.

The members of the national commission vary in occupation.

Other members include Nicholas Donofrio, executive vice president for Innovation and Technology at IBM; Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration at Boeing; Arturo Madrid, humanities professor of Texas Trinity University; and David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

Serving as chair of the panel will be Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and current chairman of Meridian National, Inc., a private investing company.

Cynthia Ramos can be reached at cynthia.ramos.838@csun.edu.