There are more than 4000 degree-granting higher-education institutions in the United States. Curiously, members of the federal Department of Education’s (DOE) Commission on the Future of Higher Education think that three meetings throughout the country, over the course of 11 months, will give them sufficient info to understand the issues facing all those public and private colleges and universities. Three meetings, 4000 schools. Sounds about right.
That said, in working toward its lofty goal (“to consider how best to improve our system of higher education to ensure that our graduates are well prepared to meet our future workforce needs and are able to participate fully in the changing economy”), the commission will likely hear the same thing over and over, if Monday’s public hearing at Boston’s Fairmont Copley Plaza offered any indication. At the daylong meeting, a panel of DOE officials heard formal testimony from local university bigwigs, followed by comments from the public, including several outspoken student leaders from all along the Eastern Seaboard. The gathering, convened by DOE secretary Margaret Spellings, was held to consider everything from standardized testing for college students, to better coordination between high schools and colleges, to access and affordability. But most comments concerned the question of cost.
Last month, the House of Representatives barely passed a budget bill that will increase interest rates on loans taken out by both parents (PLUS loans) and students (Stafford loans). Meanwhile, tuition rates keep going up, and federal Pell Grants — which don’t have to be paid back — remain frozen at 2003 levels.
One student leader from the University of Southern Maine claimed to have collected testimony from 100 fellow “slaves to Sallie Mae” about insurmountable loan debt (see “Sallie Mae Not,” News and Features, November 28, 2003). The president-elect of UMass Amherst’s Student Government Association said that three of his friends joined the armed forces just to be able to afford college. A young woman from Howard University called the financial-aid situation a “state of emergency.” A Salem State student — the first in her family to attend college — voiced concern that if loan interest rates continue to rise, higher education will become “a delicacy only appreciated by the upper class.”
Anxious students aren’t the only ones who have financial-aid grievances. Stonehill College’s director of student aid and finance, Eileen O’Leary, told the panel that increasing loan fees have pushed small colleges like Stonehill to the “crisis stage” when it comes to student lending. MIT president Susan Hockfield highlighted that institution’s recent announcement that it will match all federal Pell Grants for eligible students. And in his testimony, UMass president Jack Wilson advocated technological and managerial innovations that would “simultaneously encourage increased quality and reduced cost.”
“We have moved from an ‘everyday low pricing’ model to a ‘moderate cost, high aid’ model,” Wilson said. “Each of these models endeavors to make it possible for any qualified student to gain access to a high-quality undergraduate education, but the ‘high aid’ models do indeed transfer more of the total cost to students, hopefully according to their ability to pay.”
By August 1 of this year, the DOE must issue its report to Congress. Think they will have gotten the hint?