Blue Ribbon Commission: Executive Summary and Repo


Transforming Higher Education: National Imperative--State Responsibility

Transforming Higher Education:  National Imperative - State Responsibility

Published October 2006

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This report is written by state legislators primarily for state legislators. However, we also wish to send a strong message to others who are crucial to the reform of the system, including educators, federal and state policymakers, businesses, the media, students and families. It is a national imperative that we join together to transform the American higher education system for the 21st century. It is a state responsibility to design the goals and strategies to accomplish that. The cost of doing nothing affects not only students, but also families, our states, and our country.

Throughout deliberations, commission members have been particularly struck by the following points.
  • The American higher education system no longer is the best in the world. Other countries outrank and outperform us. Although the United States has some of the best institutions in the world, we do a poor job overall in our mass education production.
  • At the same time, tuition and fees are increasing rapidly, and the quality of the educational experience is not keeping pace. 
  • The cost of attending college has increased significantly.  States have cut back their commitment to higher education. Tuition has dramatically increased, and student financial assistance has not kept pace. The federal government has decreased its support of needy students and has shifted much of its student financial assistance from Pell grants to tax credits. Increasingly, lower income students are being priced out of college. More students are assuming sizeable student loans.
  • Other countries are significantly improving their higher education performance. These countries have at least two things in common: They are prioritizing higher education in their national public agenda and they are approaching higher education reform as part of a national economic development strategy.
  • The American higher education system is not preparing students for the 21st century global society. Many business, political and education leaders—including Thomas Friedman and Bill Gates—argue that we’ve lost our competitive edge. We’re not taking globalization seriously. Globalization demands different priorities, different skills and different knowledge. 
  • We apply 20th century policy solutions to a 21st century world. Today’s students differ significantly from yesterday’s. Only about 40 percent of the students in our higher education system fit the model of the “traditional” student. Today’s students include older and returning students. Many attend multiple institutions, take longer to obtain their degree, and may attend part time. Yet policy decisions still focus primarily on the traditional student.
  • We are not prepared for the dramatically changing demographic shifts in our populations. Our fastest growing populations (Latinos, African Americans, immigrants) are the lowest participating populations in our higher education system. It is absolutely essential to the future of states and the country that these populations have access to and are successful in higher education. 
  • The states and federal government have not ensured that low-income students have access to higher education.  Government’s primary responsibility in higher education is to guarantee post-secondary education and/or training to all citizens. Yet, when we cut financial support to higher education we deny access to our most needy students. We are in danger of creating a permanent underclass.  The poorest individuals have only an 8 percent chance of obtaining a college degree compared to a 70 percent chance for the wealthiest individuals.
  • The United States has not done well in providing options for students to pursue nontraditional post-secondary education, such as vocational and technical education.  Public policy does not well support or value these choices. A 21st century education system should support opportunities for all citizens to participate in some form of post-secondary education or training.
  • Although most citizens still feel deeply that higher education is the gateway to real opportunity in this country, statistics suggest we are slamming the door shut on more students. We let too many students fall through the cracks. Nationally, for every 100 ninth graders who enter high school, only 18 finish college within six years.  These results simply are not good enough.
  • We have become complacent about the quality of higher education. There is no outcry of public opinion about the quality of the system. State legislators have not prioritized higher education in the public agenda or taken an active role in seeking reform. Faculty are content with the teaching methods of the past and are not changing as the world is changing.
  • State legislators are not exhibiting forward-thinking leadership on higher education policy. Rather than making long-term strategic policy decisions, higher education policy is based on reaction to the latest budget crisis or policy fads. This is exacerbated by the fact that higher education legislative policy is diffused among different legislative committees so that policy and budget decisions often are not coordinated.
  • Many different decision makers have a voice in state higher education policy, which makes collaboration and coordination difficult. These include governors, legislators, university leaders, state higher education executive officers, and members of governing and coordinating boards. Legislators have been satisfied to let others take leadership. As a result, the statewide purpose of higher education often is supplanted by individual institutional interests. A better strategy involves coordination among all to work toward a common statewide agenda.
  • Finally, we have forgotten that higher education is an important investment for the states and the nation.

Higher education is the ticket to a good job and economic security. A strong higher education system supports individual financial success, a strong state economy, and a competitive nation.

Purpose of This Report

Along with other policymakers, members of the commission have been greatly influenced by Thomas Friedman’s recent book, The World is Flat. Friedman lays out a logical and alarming case that the United States is losing its competitive advantage in a new, high-tech, highly mobile global economy.  This lack of competitiveness should be a matter of the highest urgency for federal and state policymakers. It is our contention that higher education policy should be at the center of this discussion. Higher education is both the problem and the solution. The nation is losing its competitiveness because it has failed to focus on how higher education reenergizes U.S competitiveness and revitalizes the states.

The commission’s purpose is not to lay blame. We do not intend to indict institutions of higher education or the dedicated staff who work in them. We do not intend to scold our legislative colleagues—we understand the difficult political environments in which you work. Rather, we are suggesting that we can do much better and that it is imperative that we do so. We believe that legislators have a responsibility to their states and their citizens to assert their leadership on this important issue and lead a statewide movement for reform.

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