Anya Kamenetz is a columnist for the Village Voice and
author of Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time
to Be Young, about student loan debt, the job market,
and other matters of generationalpolitics, forthcoming
from Riverhead Books in February 2006.
"No qualified student who wants to go to college should be barred
by lack of money. That has long been a great American goal; I propose
that we achieve it now." President Nixon said that to Congress in 1970.
On Sept. 19, Margaret Spellings, the current U.S. secretary of education,
echoed him: "We should send students a clear message: If you work hard,
you can go to college—regardless of how much money your parents
make." A very fine sentiment—and very far from the truth, now even
more so than when Nixon said it.
Spellings was announcing a new blue-ribbon Commission on the Future
of Higher Education. Nineteen experts from academia, business and the
policy world will hold public hearings around the country and produce
a report by next August tackling two questions: "How can we ensure that
college is affordable and accessible?" and "How well are institutions of
higher education preparing our students to compete in the new global
economy?" Both are crucial matters, yet the commission is uniquely
poorly positioned to come up with helpful recommendations on either one.
If they wanted to know how not to answer the first question, the experts
could look at the version of the Higher Education Act currently before
Congress. Federal student aid faces the largest cuts in the history of the
program—$12.5 billion. Education was the sacrificial lamb of the budget
reconciliation process, required to provide a third of all deficit reduction.
The cuts are mostly clawbacks, higher fees and higher interest rates on
the federal loans that most students now need to pay for college. The
state PIRGs' Higher Education Project says these could add up to $6,000,
over the repayment period, on the average $17,600 borrowed by public
school grads in 2004.
These days, with loans prevailing and grants underfunded, the amount
of money your parents make quite directly determines the chance that
you will go to college. As Donald Heller at the Center For the Study of
Higher Education at Penn State points out, the lowest-achieving rich
kids are just as likely to attend college (77 percent) as the highest-achieving
poor kids (78 percent). The gaps in college attendance between whites
and blacks and whites and Hispanics more than doubled between 1970 and
Why would the Department of Education even raise the subject of access,
knowing that any sensible student advocate would point the finger right
back at them? Well, they didn't invite many sensible student advocates,
such as the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the
Institute for Higher Education Policy, the National Association of Student
Financial Aid Administrators, or the Education Commission of the States
—all of which have recommended increases in federal student aid. The sole
mainstream higher education policy representative on the list is the
American Council on Education's David Ward. He's up against Richard
Vedder of the American Enterprise Institute, an economist who has written
a book and testified before Congress on his very convenient view that
federal student aid is bad for affordability, because it encourages colleges
to raise prices, and should therefore be curbed immediately.
As self-serving as the money conversation looks to be, the commission's second
focus, on "the new global economy," may turn out even more counterproductive
for colleges as we know them. There are four corporate representatives in
the mix. They come exclusively from what could be called the old guard
of the tech world: Boeing, Microsoft, IBM and Autodesk, which produces
venerable design software CAD. Add Charles M. Vest, a professor of mechanical
engineering at MIT, and you can pretty much predict what the commission
is going to call for: more engineers. I hate to say it, but this is a losing battle.
In 2005, China will produce 600,000 engineering BAs, India will graduate
350,000, compared to America's 70,000. Moreover, companies like
Microsoft and IBM, which already outsource high-tech jobs overseas, are
not going to be tripping over themselves to rehire American workers at
American wages—unless they're here to angle for some sort of federal incentive?
America's true economic edge comes from its status as a center of innovation.
Our strength is identifying and creating the next area of opportunity,
not producing workers for the last one. To do this, we rely on the
independent research and scholarship conducted in our universities. And
that's where the Spelling commission really comes in with a wrecking ball.
"Unlike K–12 education, we don't ask a lot of questions about what we're getting
for our investment in higher education," Spellings said in her remarks. "It's hard
to make good policy without sound data on what's working well and what
needs to work better."
Hm, sound data. Know what that sounds like? Testing! And indeed,
testers (Kaplan), and accountability advocates (The Education Trust,
The Learning Alliance), will be at the table. As Spellings also pointed out,
the federal government provides nearly a third of all funding to colleges,
as opposed to less than a tenth for K-12 education, meaning the carrot
and stick it wields are much bigger. Do we really want to see rigid
accountability procedures imposed on our universities? Is Stanford going
to be penalized for dropouts like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who left its
Ph.D program to found Google?
In all seriousness, the threat of reduced federal funding is likely to fall
heaviest on public colleges serving poor and minority students—just
as it does for elementary and secondary schools. Schools like community
colleges and historically black colleges where students are most reliant
on federal financial aid also tend to have the lowest graduation rates
and other measures of performance. These colleges, if punished too
harshly by withheld funds, are liable to go out of business and leave
their low-income, working populations without alternatives. If that
happens, money, more than ever, will determine the size of students'
Monday, October 03, 2005
Cronies on Higher Ed Commission
This from TomPaine.com today: