- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Reforming the Higher Education Act One of the most important education policy debates of the year is about to unfold on Capitol Hill, as Congress writes the next chapter of school reform — reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Yet, despite the significance of this new volume, some leaders of America’s colleges and universities would rather see a book-burning than a signing party when it comes to completing this legislation. Republican lawmakers plan to promote a series of new initiatives, infusing increased accountability for higher education programs — ideas that strike fear in the hearts of some in the academic world. Educational institutions face mounting criticism in Congress about steady tuition increases and a growing sense among some lawmakers that the competencies associated with a college degree are declining. Despite escalating questions from Congress, some ivory tower leaders strenuously resist change. Not unlike an over-the-hill tenured professor retreating to the comfort of yellowed lecture notes, they argue that quality and affordability are within their control — despite ample evidence to the contrary.Fighting to maintain the status quo is not an alien concept to some in the education establishment — in fact, it’s becoming as common as the fifth-year senior. Many plotted to derail principles of accountability in last year’s No Child Left Behind for K-12 schools, but a more ferocious flap over the Higher Education Act is brewing. As one Bush Administration official said, “If you thought the elementary and secondary education lobbying squealed when we talked accountability, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Leaders in Congress, such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Buck McKeon, California Republican, say “accountability” will be part of the core curriculum of this year’s reauthorization debate. Legislation crafted by Mr. McKeon, creating a “College Affordability Index,” is the most immediate target of the higher education lobby’s ire. The bill requires institutions where tuition goes up by twice the rate of inflation to provide a plan to hold down further increases. Schools that do not reduce tuition within a year face sanctions. It also provides some new flexibility for institutions seeking innovative approaches to deliver higher education while increasing affordability.Even small steps, like the one advocated by Mr. McKeon, receive swift and strong criticism from higher education leaders. “Price controls for higher education” complained one college president. Mr. McKeon’s initiative captured the college establishment’s interest the way a pop quiz gets students’ attention. “Even before the legislation was introduced, every college president in America knew about it,” said Mr. Boehner.Republican lawmakers and the Bush Administration view injecting accountability into higher education as the next logical step in education reform, following up on the No Child Left Behind Act. “We spent a lot of time promoting accountability in K-12 education policy and the federal role in those programs is only seven percent,” said one Republican aide involved in the reform effort. “The federal role in higher education is now 35 percent, and that percentage doubled since 1998. Why shouldn’t we ask more questions about how the money’s spent?”In addition to the burgeoning federal role, lawmakers want to know why tuition continues to escalate at a record pace. College price increases run two to three times the rate of inflation on average, and in some states like Massachusetts, increased 24 percent in the last two years. “Some tell us it’s because of a soft economy, and that as the state role diminishes, tuition increases. But tuition seems to go up during good times and bad times,” said a House Republican aide involved in the legislation. Finally, given the increased federal commitment and the escalating costs, some lawmakers wonder if more money buys better quality. “I see resumes from college graduates every day, and it’s unclear they can even write,” said one Hill staffer. It is clear that many lawmakers believe a college degree used to translate to certain core competencies. That is no longer the case.Despite these growing concerns, “legislating” quality and accountability in higher education is complicated. “It is difficult to legislate solutions in this area,” admitted Mr. Boehner. “But we can shine a light on some of these problems and begin to ask some tough questions. Passing laws is not the only way to change public policy.” He’s right. Mr. McKeon’s legislation may need some adjustments, but conservatives should rally around efforts to promote accountability and innovative ideas that increase affordability. While making some in the education community nervous, these lawmakers have started a vital debate. Despite the predictable protests from those isolated in ivory towers, Congress needs to liberate these prisoners of academic freedom. Congressionally initiated accountability is unpopular among the university elite, but during this year’s final exam season, it’s time for professors and administrators to start answering these tough questions.

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