The 2006 publication of the controversial report of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education has sparked a national dialogue about the state of postsecondary education in the United States. The report places higher education in crisis and calls for a number of radical reforms in the areas of accessibility, accountability, affordability and quality. While most constituents agree that some change would improve the establishment, not all concur that a crisis exists or that radical reform is necessary for its survival. In the year since its publication, a number of important changes have been introduced while others are being considered for adoption. The impact of the report on the higher education community will be discussed.
Keywords Accountability; Accreditation; Financial Aid; Higher Education; Institutional Effectiveness; Negotiated Rulemaking; Spellings Commission; Spellings Report; United States Department of Education (USDOE)
In 2005, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established a 19-member commission to "consider how best to improve our system of higher education to ensure that our graduates are well prepared to meet our future workforce needs and are able to participate fully in the changing economy" (US Department of Education, 2006, p. 33). One year later, the commission submitted its report and published A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education: A Report of the Commission Appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (2006). The Spellings commission examined four key areas of higher education:
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They concluded with six strong recommendations for reform directed at colleges and universities, accrediting agencies, governing boards, policymakers, elementary and secondary schools, the business community, parents and students (USDOE, 2006).
For the purposes of the report, the commission defined higher education as inclusive of "all public and private education that is available after high school, from trade schools, online professional training institutions and technical colleges to community colleges, traditional four-year colleges and universities, and graduate and professional programs" (USDOE, 2006, p. xi). Among its goals were the continuation of a world-class educational system that recognizes and adapts to changes in demographics, technology, and globalization, accessibility of higher education to all Americans throughout their lives, efficiency and cost-effectiveness within and among institutions and graduates with workplace skills adequate to a rapidly changing economy (USDOE, 2006).
The report strongly criticizes the current state of U.S. higher education and has stirred a great deal of debate among educators, administrators and policymakers. A recent article quotes the report as saying,
Castigating American higher education as complacent, the report claims the U.S. educational system is risk-averse, self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. Like railroads and steel manufacturers, the report warns, the education industry must adapt or risk being left behind by educational systems in other countries ("Spellings report spells," 2006, p. 10).
The Commission asserts that higher education is not simply a means for social mobility and holds that "everyone needs a postsecondary education" (USDOE, 2006, p. x). Moreover, the Spellings Commission blames higher education for the lack of continuity between secondary and postsecondary education, which often results in inadequate preparation for college and poor retention of those who do attempt college level work (USDOE, 2006).
Further, the commission found that "many students who earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing and thinking skills we expect of college graduates [as] over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined" (USDOE, 2006, p. x). The consequences of these and other compounding problems, such as a lack of accountability in higher education and a confusing and inadequate system for disbursing financial aid, impact all Americans. However, they "are most severe for students from low-income families and for racial and ethnic minorities" (USDOE, 2006, p. x).
Finally, the report states that the changing demographics of current college students have not yet been recognized. Americans tend to believe undergraduates are "18-to-22 years old with a recently acquired high school diploma attending classes at a four-year institution" (USDOE, 2006, p. xi). In reality, "of the nation's nearly 14 million undergraduates, more than four in ten attend two-year community colleges. Nearly one-third are older than 24 years old. Forty percent are enrolled part-time" (USDOE, 2006, p. xi).
Some of these conditions remain true today. For instance, A 2011 report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Affordability and Transfer: Critical to Increasing Baccalureate Degrees notes that in many states the majority of students in higher education are enrolled in 2-year institutions, but that difficulties in transferring credits stand in the way of these students earning a bachelor's degree. The same report notes that African American, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students are disproportionately likely to enroll in 2-year institutions in many states, so that inadequate recognition of their needs makes it more difficult for these students to complete their education.
While a number of other studies have been published in the past decade, the Spellings Commission findings differ in significant ways (Basken, 2007). The Commission does not suggest that additional funding is necessary; nor does it suggest that shifts in academic priorities are required. "The Spellings panel proposed a direct challenge to some deeply cherished and longstanding ways in which colleges operate, calling on higher education to shed some of its mystery and fundamentally prove the value it delivers" (Basken, 2007, p. 2). To accomplish that change, the commission called upon institutions to measure and publish student learning outcomes including developing standardized tests, administering them and compiling data, including total student costs and college completion rates. This kept the Commission from granting its unanimous approval of the report. According to Basken (2007), "one member, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, withheld his vote, saying he could not be sure how Congress might translate his colleagues' language into legislation" (p. 3).
The commission shed light on issues surrounding accessibility, affordability and accountability. Ward believes that "so far the political responses have left the ball in our court. If the efforts currently underway continue and institutions adopt them, I believe we will avoid costly, complex and misguided federal policy solutions" (Ward, 2007, p. 5).
Among its findings, the Spellings Commission reports that access to higher education remains limited for many Americans, especially those in low-income classes, racial and ethnic minority groups and underserved and nontraditional groups. The commission stresses that this is a critical issue as these populations will comprise a large portion of the workforce in coming years (USDOE, 2006). The report states "access to higher education in the United States is unduly limited by the complex interplay of inadequate preparation, lack of information about college opportunities, and persistent financial barriers" (USDOE, 2006, p. 8).
The higher education community recognizes obstacles related to access and diversity and has made these issues a priority; the Commission's report has focused increased attention on an already critical concern. Efforts are underway to actively address such issues. According to Andrew Ward (2006), president of the American Council for Education (ACE), "ACE joined with Lumina Foundation for Education and the Advertising Council to develop the KnowHOw2Go public access campaign, which is using national advertising to expose millions of first-generation and low-income middle school students to important information regarding college preparation and financial aid." Furthermore, ACE, State higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), and the National Association of System Heads (NASH) are working with Achieve on its American Diploma Project Network, a project which targets making the high school diploma a true indicator of preparedness for college (Ward, 2007, p. 5).
The Commission found that issues surrounding cost and affordability posed persistent and significant barriers for Americans seeking postsecondary education. Describing the system as "dysfunctional", the commission describes rapidly declining state subsidies and rising tuition costs at a time when the cost per student is increasing faster than inflation or family income (USDOE, 2006, p. 10). The Commission asserts, "colleges and universities have few incentives to contain costs because prestige is often measured by resources, and managers who hold down spending risk losing their academic reputations" (USDOE, 2006, p. 11). Reeves (2007) supports the Commission's findings and states, "many observers have become alarmed by the ever-escalating price of a college degree. A study released in 2006 by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave 43 states the grade of "F" for affordability" (p. 1).
The Commission found that major reform is needed to...
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