Wonder why the Spellings Commission is packed with corporationists?
By Anya Kamenetz
TomPaine.comOctober 3, 2005
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 generational politics, 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 2000.
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' dreams.
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