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New Congress, New Focus

Spellings and higher ed association leaders list their priorities.
University Business, Dec 2006

All eyes in Washington's postsecondary community are on the future, which begins in January with the start of the newly elected 110th Congress and the final two years of the Bush administration.

With Democrats gaining control of the House and the Senate, the higher ed agenda will likely be impacted. The shift of control will bring changes in the lineup and leadership of its key education and appropriations committees.

Before the elections, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and six major Washington-based higher ed association leaders laid out their priorities for action, or at least discussion, in the new year.

Spellings' action plan is based on the recommendations by her bipartisan Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Her proposals include simplifying the process for financial aid; creating a privacy-protected student-level data system to provide transparency and ease when students and families shop for colleges; and providing matching funds to institutions and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes.

The link made between higher ed and the nation's global competitiveness has set up an opportune time to step forward.

Spellings says the U.S. Department of Education will work to simplify the federal student aid process by cutting the application time in half and notifying students of their aid eligibility earlier than spring of their senior year to facilitate planning by the families. She also intends to streamline the process by partnering with states to use existing income and tax data to help students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The proposed student-level data system would be similar to what currently exists for K-12 students. With the information the system provides, the education department's existing college search website could be redesigned and made more useful to answer such basic questions as how much a school is really going to cost and how long it will take to get a degree.

Spellings notes that the number of nontraditional students has increased in recent years as more Americans of all ages seek additional degrees in midcareer or attend college for the first time. She says her plan would facilitate their access to information on colleges, financial aid, and affordability. Providing matching funds to IHEs and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes would increase transparency and accountability, Spellings adds.

The six major associations representing presidents and chancellors outlined their next steps on issues related to undergraduate education in a letter sent to IHEs. Entitled "Addressing the Challenges Facing American Undergraduate Education," it dovetails with President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative and congressional efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, as well as reform work undertaken by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, The National Academies, and Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Endorsing the letter were the presidents of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), American Council on Education (ACE), Association of American Universities (AAU), National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

The letter notes that "serious challenges face American higher education and the nation's continued economic competitiveness and security." They include expanding college access to low-income and minority students; keeping college affordable; improving learning through new knowledge and instructional techniques; preparing secondary students for higher ed; increasing accountability for educational outcomes; internationalizing the student experience; and increasing chances for lifelong education and workforce training.

Association leaders outline a number of specific initiatives, including:

A pledge to strongly support in Congress the "bold recommendation" of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to increase the average Pell Grant to 70 percent (from 48 percent in 2004-05) of the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities over a period of five years.

A three-year national public service campaign that ACE will launch in early 2007 to encourage low-income, first-generation students to prepare for college. The Advertising Council and Lumina Foundation for Education will partner with ACE in the "Know How To Go" campaign.

Work by ACE and several other organizations on the National Diploma Project, a state-based initiative designed to increase the number of high school graduates who exit secondary school prepared to do college-level work without remediation or move smoothly into the workforce or military service.

A launch by NASULGC, AASCU, AAU, and NAICU of a multifaceted initiative to increase the number of science and mathematics teachers prepared by colleges and universities and recommended to states for certification.

Development by NASULGC and AASCU of a voluntary, transparent system of accountability for public four-year institutions. AACC has launched a task force to examine these issues in the context of community colleges, and AAU and NAICU also are addressing accountability issues.

The association leaders who signed the letter say they look forward to a collective engagement of the higher education community with state and federal policy makers. "The link between higher education and our nation's global competitiveness has been made in Congress and the federal agencies. This is an opportune time for us to step forward and take advantage of this policy climate change," says ACE President David Ward.

Almost forgotten as 2006 winds down is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Instead, lawmakers passed a series of extensions of programs authorized under HEA and bucked it to the new Congress for further action. The latest extension, which President Bush signed in September, carries the HEA through June 30, 2007, one-quarter of the way through the new Congress.

In another issue that will carry over into the new year, ACE and 20 other higher ed associations filed an amicus brief in support of school diversity with the Supreme Court, which is considering related cases that originated in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. public schools. The brief draws on the high court's 2003 decision in a University of Michigan admissions case, which maintained that race-conscious college admissions policies are permissible if they advance "a compelling state interest."

The associations wrote that while there are important differences between higher ed and the elementary and secondary school settings at issue in the Seattle and Louisville cases, "a broad consensus exists among educators at all levels that diversity is essential to their mission and that government should defer to good-faith efforts to attain its educational benefits." A court ruling is expected in the first half of 2007.

International education, in both directions, also might heat up in 2007. In October, ACE wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting the State Department's support for the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Program, an initiative designed to increase the number of U.S. college and university students studying abroad to one million in 10 years, up from fewer than 200,000 students per year now.

International student enrollment in the U.S. has been on a downfall since peaking in 2002-03.

Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) introduced legislation in July to establish the program. ACE wants Rice to allocate $50 million in the State Department's FY 2008 budget request to launch it. But it was unlikely that Congress would act on the legislation in the waning weeks of this year's session, so it will have to be reintroduced in 2007.

Meanwhile, trends in international student enrollment reveal a shifting market that could dramatically impact the United States' position as the destination of choice for the largest group of international students, according to a new ACE issue brief. The paper highlights that declines in the U.S. market share of international students in the past five years have been accompanied by steady increases in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. International student enrollment in the U.S. has been on a downfall since peaking in 2002-03 and the U.S. had the weakest growth in international enrollment among the top six host countries from 1999-2000 to 2004-05.

While it does not draw conclusions about why fewer international students are coming to the U.S., the paper identifies some strategies that other countries are using to attract them, including national policies and coordinated efforts underway in Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany; immigration policies used to target a high-skill labor force in Canada; and English-speaking programs being offered in non-English-speaking countries like Finland and Sweden.

The brief concludes, however, that declines in the number of international students, especially in science and engineering, will affect the ability of higher education, business, and government in the U.S. to engage in research and development.

That might be a message that draws congressional interest in the new year.

Alan Dessoff, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.

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