Commission on Higher Ed draft report

This week the Commission on Higher Education, set up by the Department of Education, issued a draft of their widely-anticipated report on the state of higher education in the United States.

It doesn't pull a lot of punches. The commission registers a litany of complaints, which fall into four broad categories:

- Access. Access to higher education is unduly limited by inadequate preparation, financial and information barriers, and a fundamental disconnect between high school and college curricula.

- Affordability. Building on access complaints, college education costs have risen at a rate far outpacing inflation, and financial aid processes have become too cumbersome.

- Quality. Despite a high rate of expenditure, undergraduate education outcomes are worse now than 50 years ago.

- Accountability. The "customers" of higher ed (the students and their parents, not to mention the taxpayers) have no useful information or metrics to compare and constrast institutions' ability to deliver a quality education.

A lot of this is common criticism, and their recommendations are in many cases very general. I found a couple of interesting points in the draft report though:

The commission was highly critical of universities who, in their eyes, place too much focus on research at the expense of teaching. While there's certianly some merit to this, it fails to acknowledge that university research is also graduate student education. No doubt, though, that undergraduate education is super important. It does bring back an idea I hear tossed around frequently that in this day and age we ought to do a better job of leveraging great lectures by broadcasting them to more campuses (either live or pre-recorded). A central set of world-class lectures would free up instructors to focus on more productive uses of their time: more individualized instruction time, and research. And it would improve the over quality of lectures on many college campuses.

The commission also points out that many of the best colleges and universities have no incentive whatsoever to keep costs down -- they can simply raise tuition.  They speculate as to what would happen if a reward system would be put in place that actually rewarded fiscal prudence and cost-efficiency in higher education.

As I read their discussion about accounatiblity, I was very worried that they would propose the equivalent of NCLB for high ed. foctunately, they stopped shy of that mark. I read into their remarks that they believe that higher education is more of an open market, and that market-based reform will work if there is sufficient transparency and information to make it reasonably efficient. An interesting philosophy.

This report is intended to be the start of a debate. Much of it will probably go nowhere; the US higher education system is such a mishmash of community colleges, public universities, and private institutions that it will be difficult to drive any significant broad change. But it's a good step nonetheless to have some smart people articulate many of the key issues.

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