Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The NCSL Report on Higher Education and Spellings Commission Reactions

By Richard Vedder

Two things today, combined in a single blog. First, National Cross Talk, a nice newsletter on higher education issues, asked nine persons to react to the Spellings Commission report, and their comments make for interesting reading. For the most part, I agree with them. The comments ranged from quite positive (see especially that of former American Council of Education President Robert Atwell) to somewhat negative. I particularly enjoyed Checker Finn's remarks, especially his noting how the commission watered down its language and recommendations a bit in light of criticism of the excellent first draft of Ben Wildavsky. But the comments collectively give a good cross section of thinking of serious persons about some of the problems of higher education today.

Second, Bryan O'Keefe, my always faithful and diligent associate, brought my attention to a new study from the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) on higher education. They want $10 for it, which is insulting since NCSL's budget indirectly largely comes from taxpayers around the nation, and as a matter of principle I will not pay it. (NCSL is irritating in other ways as well, but that is not the subject of today's blog).

Nonetheless, the summary provided by Doug Lederman in INSIDE HIGHER ED suggests that the report on the whole complements rather than competes with the Spellings Commission report. It is critical of many practices of America's colleges and universities, and is blunter than the Spellings Commission in suggesting we no longer lead the world on some critical measures, notably access.

CCAP is particularly interested in the financial side of things. NCSL is correct in stating that higher education has become sort of the residual at the state level -- its funding is determined after the other more core needs are established, implying this is bad. Probably they are correct from the standpoint of making appropriate resource allocations, but the outcome of this approach --declining public support by states for higher education -- is not only understandable politically but may well be desirable economically, given the endemic inefficiencies, elitism, and arrogance of many public institutions. The summary Doug provided seems to suggest that NCSL may be hinting that increased higher education funding should be tied to demonstrated progress in serving social goals --efficiency gains, greater transparency, providing measures of "value added," etc.

I have always said that higher education leaders spout a lot of lofty rhetoric, but deep down what is important to them is money. Money is far more powerful than logic, reasoning, and good intentions, so bribing the top higher education "educrats" to behave appropriately is not an altogether bad idea --after all, that is what private competitive capitalism does all the time.

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