Higher education needs reform, national report says

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The nation's state legislatures need to set clear goals and hold colleges accountable in educating students, a national report released Monday recommends.

The report, released by a commission of the National Conference of State Legislatures, calls on state lawmakers to be at the center of a nationwide movement to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, demand a public agenda for higher education, set clear goals and hold institutions accountable.

"They have the power to demand that we do better, to demand that we think of higher education not as the balance wheel of budgets, but as an investment in our future," said Wisconsin representative Rob Kreibich, who co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education.

Commissioners said higher education can get shortchanged in tough budget times because it has the built-in funding source of tuition. Still, states spend about $70 billion a year on higher education, the commission said.

Push for state action

States provide more funding and regulation of colleges and universities than any other level of government, according to the report.

"States must take the initiative to reform higher education now to avoid unnecessary federal intrusion," said Connecticut representative Denise Merrill, who co-chaired the commissioned. "Higher ed has always been a state responsibility and it must remain that way," she said in a prepared statement.

Education officials in Missouri said the report reflects a growing demand for greater accountability in the operation of tax-supported colleges.

The state of Missouri has sought greater accountability, dating back at least a dozen years, said Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins.

Institutions have had to report graduation rates and other data to the higher education department, he said.

The Missouri legislature, he said, wants universities to demonstrate they are keeping fee increases to a minimum. That, he said, requires schools like Southeast to show they have made efforts to improve efficiency. Southeast has sought to do that by reviewing, cutting and revamping academic programs in recent years.

Dr. Robert Stein, acting deputy commissioner of higher education for the state of Missouri, said Monday that the national report outlines the need for still more accountability. Stein said the Missouri legislature next year could consider additional funding for higher education and need-based state aid for students.

"I think in Missouri we are working to forge a coalition in support of higher education," he said.

The national legislative commission of six Republicans and six Democrats spent 18 months examining trends and issues in higher education.

The commission made 15 recommendations to the nation's legislatures. Among them:

* Set state goals.

* Engage in statewide discussions about the performance of higher education.

* Hold institutions accountable for their performance.

* Rethink student aid to reward efficient students and help adults and part-time students.

* Help reduce borrowing and debt that now burdens college students.

* Make college more affordable and accessible including making better use of low-cost options like technical schools and community colleges.

* Work to ensure that students graduate.

* Encourage partnerships with businesses and school districts.

* Encourage more use of dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment and early college education programs to help students prepare for college and earn diplomas sooner.

* Consider the needs of adults learners.

* Focus on productivity and demand that institutions become more efficient.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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