Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Test of Leadership

By Richard Vedder

Sara Martinez Tucker hit a home run at the Secretary of Education's Higher Education Summit going on in Chicago. She called for a major recasting of the nation's system of financial aid, beginning with reducing the FAFSA form from over 100 questions down to nine. Although she did not talk much about it, she also said she wants to make the student the center of the system -- getting money to kids, not to financial aid offices is how I interpret that. She also wants to make federal aid the "foundation", not the residual in the process. I think she means there needs to be less possibility for colleges to play games with grants, reducing institutional aid to offset federal grants, for example. Amen. Amen. Amen. She was a little vague on a few things, I suspect because her White House colleagues don't want to upset the apple cart in this election year.

I was extremely pleased when one of the true heroes in American higher education, Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system (which has worked systematically to reduce costs, increasing legislative support for the system in the process) said he was enthusiastic about Sara's idea.

The University of Maryland realizes you have to change the culture in order to achieve true cost savings. He has increased teaching loads 10 percent. It has signed lots of articulation agreements that allow ease of transfer from low cost community colleges. It makes students take 12 hours of work outside the classroom (e.g., on-line programs, study abroad), both for educational and cost-saving reasons. It has lowered the average years to graduation from over 5 to about 4.5. Although what it has done is not rocket science, it takes determination. The legislators are starting to trust the university again, and legislative support is up 35 percent in the last three years.

Another guy I think is absolutely great is Charlie Reed, czar of the California State University system. In a future blog I will discuss some things he is doing, not only to cut costs, but to increase accessibility for lower income students.

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