Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Higher Education Commission Struggles to Pinpoint Options for Education Reform: Panel Reaches Little Consensus on Financial Aid, Other Issues

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Higher Education Commission Struggles to Pinpoint Options for Education Reform: Panel Reaches Little Consensus on Financial Aid, Other Issues

Article excerpt

After several months of public hearings and a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education has given few signs on whether it will adopt the bold higher education recommendations that the Bush administration wants from the panel.

At its last public meeting, in May, the commission reviewed many different proposals but agreed on few specifics, instead continuing to debate about financial aid improvements, accreditation and standardized testing--the same issues it has been talking about since the meetings started in October 2005.

The deadline for the final report has been pushed back, allowing members more time to tackle the complex task and build consensus on issues that have elicited passionately divergent opinions. For example, some panelists want large new investments of federal money for financial aid while others favor a reallocation of existing funds. Some members also continue to focus on the need for standardized testing to demonstrate whether colleges are effectively educating students while critics argue that students are tested enough, more than their international peers.

"It's a sticky, tricky time period," said commission chair Charles Wilson.

Wilson said the discussion at the meeting was "scattered," but that reforming the higher education system is a difficult process. He said there was "surface consensus" that something should be done about financial aid, but some members won't recommend more financial aid without improved accountability and less waste in the system.

"If we don't do anything to improve the accountability, we can't make a case for more financial aid," Wilson said.

In the coming months, the commission will retreat behind dosed doors, working in smaller groups to hash out final recommendations. The Bush administration is looking for groundbreaking ideas, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told the panel as she urged members to "be as concrete and bold as you possibly can."

The bold options under consideration include increasing need-based aid such as Pell Grants by limiting or revoking federal tuition tax credits. While these credits have become politically popular in the last decade, they only really benefit more affluent households, said Arthur J. Rothkopf, president emeritus of Lafayette College.

But former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, a Democrat, called the idea politically naive. …

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