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Critical Draft Spellings Commission Report Surfaces

June 27, 2006

A preliminary draft of the final report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education was publicly released June 26th, in preparation for a meeting of commission members on June 28th.  The 27-page report scolds the American higher education system as being "equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity."  There are numerous critical findings, including insufficient access to higher education (caused by poor preparation, lack of alignment of standards, and financial barriers), an "inexorable increase in college costs" (due to a failure by higher education to achieve efficiencies or improve productivity, and a dysfunctional system of higher education financing), a declining or inadequate quality in the level of learning, and a "woeful lack" of publicly available, accurate information about colleges and how well they impart knowledge. A copy of the draft report is available on the commission's Web site.

The draft was reportedly prepared by staff and consultants, and reaction to it by commission members has been wide-ranging, and frequently quite critical.  These early responses to the draft report could suggest that commission members are far apart on even the basic tone of the report and on whether higher education should be challenged, or chastised.  Beyond the disagreement over tone, there are also real differences of opinion on the specific recommendations that will be included in the final report.  The widely diverging viewpoints on both language and substance suggest that commission members face a daunting task as they try to reach common ground on both the framework and a set of recommendations. 

The draft report's recommendations fall into four categories: access; affordability; quality and innovation; and accountability. Some of  the many proposed recommendations to be debated call for:

  • the complete overhaul of the entire student aid system, together with substantial increases in need-based aid;
  • creation of an overall measurement of an institution's "bottom line," including measures of institutional costs and performance that let parents and policy makers view institutional results;
  • a mandate that institutions measure student learning outcomes, disseminate the results to students, and report them publicly in the aggregate;
  • development of a national student unit-record database to follow the progress of each student;
  • establishing a national accreditation framework that includes comparable performance measures, and making the findings of reviews easily accessible to the public;
  • removal of barriers to the transfer of student credits; and 
  • creation of financial incentives for institutions to lower costs through technological advances.

Members of the commission--expected to issue a final report in September--met behind closed doors June 28th to discuss their reactions to the draft report and next steps. The commission has 19 members, primarily representing the business community and higher education institutions.  Education Secretary Margaret Spellings created the commission and appointed members in September 2005.  Since then, the commission has held a number of meetings and hearings across the country in an effort to gather opinions and proposals.  It has also engaged a number of consultants to prepare issue papers to guide the work, which are available on the commission's Web site.


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