The U.S. Department of Education convened a March 22 summit on higher education to address the goals of its plan to reform higher education in America.
Over 250 business and academic leaders and officials gathered in Washington, D.C., and hammered out a list of 25 “action items” to help the Department achieve some of what it set out to do.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling first announced the plan in October 2006, shortly after the Department’s Commission on Higher Education released its annual report.
She expressed a desire to retool the nation’s financial aid programs and to hold colleges and universities accountable for student learning and achievement. She also indicated her support of No Child Left Behind.
Spellings’ prepared remarks from last week’s summit, however, took a more muted tone compared to her initial plans. A few of Spellings’ previous comments made some educators leery due to their apparent hard-line approach toward reform.
This time, however, she said she was “honored to share” the responsibility of reform with colleges and universities. “We’re working to do our part,” she said. “But more importantly, we’re not working alone.”
In September, she talked about “transparency and accountability,” but last week tried to emphasize a broader scope of change and to appeal to the sensibilities of college and university officials.
“America’s universities have long been the envy of the world,” said Spellings’ prepared remarks. “But the data shows that we are in danger of losing that position.”
“At a time when more Americans need a degree, it’s becoming more difficult to get one-and for low-income and minority students it can be nearly impossible.”
The officials present at the summit-including elected officials, university presidents and corporate CEOs-set to work in group sessions before coming up with their list of action items.
While many of the action items did not come with an implementation plan, Department officials told the Chronicle of Higher Education that they would determine ways to act on them-and who would be responsible for them-in the near future.
One of the suggestions was to finance databases and information systems about students’ whereabouts after completing a degree, and to make that information public with the intent of creating summaries and reports.
Another was the idea of rewarding colleges and other region-wide university systems that collaborate on and develop shared curricula and academic performance standards.
One of the frequent criticisms of American higher education is that it is too decentralized-something this would seek to remedy. Coming up with more centralized standards was a common theme among the action plan items.
The “action plan” also included a desire to study the student market and appeal to underserved demographics, to raise more financial aid money from the private sector, to ensure that more financial aid money is available to part-time students and to encourage lower per-student costs within institutions.
Spellings’ plan from the fall also included NCLB reauthorization, increases in Pell Grants and a faster turnaround time for students to determine their financial aid eligibility.
She also wanted to make it easier for students to research higher education possibilities. “We need a system where an individual student can easily search across regions,” she said. “What engineering program is the most affordable and has the best success graduating African-American students in four years, for example.”
The summit also came on the heels of a study by Making Opportunity Affordable titled, “Hitting Home,” which indicated that the United States’ higher education performance is lagging on the world stage and needs drastic changes to improve.