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Colleges note gaps in education draft report

When Janessa Todd enrolls as a freshman at Spokane Community College in the fall, she’ll be paying the bills with help from a lot of sources.

A scholarship, student loans, the low cost of living at home and a job at Taco Time.

One thing she won’t get is a federal Pell grant, because she doesn’t qualify for the low-income program. She and her mother, Ginnie, said that while their family is middle class, they still can’t afford university tuition.

“As the prices go up, more of us need assistance, but we don’t qualify,” Ginnie said.

High costs and the trials of a fractured financial aid system are two of the less controversial targets in a draft report prepared by a federal commission examining higher education in America. But the Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report takes other big swipes at the system – criticizing it for being costly, inefficient, unaccountable and out of reach for too many poor students.

It calls for an increase in need-based aid, simplification of the financial aid system, record-keeping that allows families to easily find key information about colleges, and more concrete measures of “learning outcomes” – likely standardized testing of some sort.

“Among the vast and varied institutions that make up U.S. higher education,” the report says, “we have found equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity.”

Leaders at Inland Northwest colleges and universities who reviewed the report last week said they feel it unfairly blasts schools for raising tuition, without noting that states have steadily reduced their funding and enrollments have risen. They say it also overlooks a lot of innovative work being done at colleges.

“I don’t think they’re barking up the wrong tree in terms of the challenges we face,” said Mary Wack, dean of the honors college and interim director of the Office of Undergraduate Education at Washington State University. “I might take issue with the tone” and balance of the report.

Educators said they’ve already been addressing many concerns in the report – developing ways of measuring effectiveness in classrooms, cutting budgets, finding creative new ways to teach. And they argue that the report’s authors seem to want innovations at no cost.

“The commission’s draft report is simultaneously saying colleges should cut costs and improve the undergraduate experience,” said Sherman Dorn, an associate professor at University of South Florida who blogs regularly about education policy.

“What we’ve really seen is cost-shifting over the last couple of generations,” Dorn said. “State legislatures have taken a last-to-be-funded, first-to-be-cut approach to higher ed. (Public) universities and colleges have had no choice but to shift the costs onto students.”

But Charles Miller, the commission chairman, and the report itself argue that universities do have a choice – find ways to be more efficient and productive. And Miller says he’s been taken aback by the reaction to the report – an early draft released after some commission members complained their views were not fully represented.

“The response from the academy surprised me,” Miller said last week. “They just don’t want to hear it. … They’re exceedingly defensive, in my opinion.”

Miller worked with then-Gov. George W. Bush in Texas on reforms reflected in the No Child Left Behind Act. His critics in academia say he brings a business approach to the university system that prompts simplistic measures, such as standardized testing, to a situation complicated by a huge number and style of institutions.

Miller said he doesn’t intend to lay all the blame at the feet of the colleges, but the system faces urgent problems – from low graduation rates to worsening skills among graduates – and requires urgent action.

“I think there’s some failures on both sides of these things,” he said. “I don’t know that we have any magic answers, but we’re going to highlight these issues.”

Covering the cost

College tuition has risen steadily for years, and the report criticizes schools for “inefficient and at times wasteful spending.”

“We believe that affordability is directly affected by colleges’ and universities’ failure to seek institutional efficiencies and by their disregard for improving productivity, since the current system provides institutions with few incentives to do either,” the report says.

But the report doesn’t talk much about the fact that state support for colleges has been declining for years. In Washington, research universities get more than half their instruction costs from tuition – up from about a third in the 1992-93 school year.

“Sometimes you just can’t bleed that stone very much more,” said Mark Palek, president of Spokane Falls Community College. “I think we’re really lean … right now.”

And state expectations for higher ed are growing, educators say, with demands to produce more graduates and provide more options and information.

“I think the thing that concerned me is that it doesn’t have any discussion at all about how states are involved in higher education and education funding,” said Rodolfo Arevalo, president of Eastern Washington University. “It sort of glosses over that.”

Critics of the report say that focusing on tuition costs and failing to address state funding leaves the incorrect impression that universities are spending wildly. But the report cites a figure for average per-student spending – $20,245 – that is about twice the level of other industrialized nations.

Meanwhile, the report notes that there are 17 federal programs for financial aid, and that doesn’t begin to cover the range of aid from states, private organizations and other sources. It says the current federal aid application – “longer and more complicated than the federal tax return” – ought to be replaced with a postcard-sized form.

“I don’t know about the reality of that,” said Muriel Oaks, dean of the center of distance and professional education at WSU. “I do know it’s intimidating as heck (to apply).”

Obstacles for some

The report notes a wide gap in college achievement between rich and poor.

Less than 10 percent of those in the bottom socioeconomic quarter will graduate from a four-year school, compared to 58 percent of those in the top quarter. And the most academically successful poor kids attend college at roughly the same rate as the least academically successful rich ones, the report says.

Part of the problem is the rise of merit-based financial aid from all kinds of sources. While poor and middle-class families are shouldering bigger proportions of college costs, the richest quarter of American families have seen their financial aid triple in the last 15 years.

Miller said the commission isn’t likely to recommend that federal and state governments spend more money on student aid, but it wants to encourage the shifting of merit-based aid to need-based programs.

University officials agreed with the idea that more need-based financial aid is necessary to improve access to colleges.

But “the dollars have to come from somewhere – either federal financial aid programs or from state aid programs,” said Arevalo.

Measuring results

The report cites a litany of alarming figures regarding graduating high school seniors’ ability to handle college work. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 17 percent of graduating seniors are “proficient” in math, 36 percent in reading.

At the same time, the report says too many college students don’t make it through – 55 percent of freshmen at four-year schools earn a degree within six years.

And too many of those who do finish are leaving without key skills. The percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has declined 11 percentile points between 1992 and 2003.

The report calls for a greater coordination of standards and expectations between K-12 and higher education. It also calls for measuring “learning outcomes” via standardized tests or other measures.

“Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit,” it says.

The idea of a WASL-like test for colleges is unpopular among many educators, who say college learning is too diverse and complex to be measured accurately by a single test. But Miller argues that measuring basic, core learning isn’t so difficult.

“Is freshman English different in Spokane than in Houston, Texas?” he asked. “In general education, there’s a commonality.”

In any case, the pressure for more information about student success and college effectiveness is growing, and university officials say they’re already working on measures to gauge student learning – such as portfolios that show a range of work.

Arevalo said EWU is working to develop such rubrics for every degree program. At WSU, researchers are applying for grants now to develop a portfolio-based system that could be used across the country, said Wack, the WSU honors dean.

“We’re very mindful of the need (for assessment), and it’s one we’re working on very hard,” she said.

Comparing schools

Miller says higher ed is “a black hole of information,” and he would like to see the day when families have access to a database that allows them to make comparisons among institutions about costs, effectiveness, graduation rates and other information.

“We have found a remarkable shortage of clear, accessible information about crucial aspects of American colleges and universities, from financial aid to graduation rates,” the report says.

Again, educators say they’ve been increasing the information they compile and make available. They say the diversity of higher education – from huge public institutions to small, elite private schools to GED programs at community colleges – makes comparisons difficult and in some cases misleading.

“It makes it kind of difficult to implement across-the-board policies,” Arevalo said.