More solutions than presidential commission

By Editorial Board

Vartan Gregorian, president of the influential nonprofit Carnegie Corporation of New York, is trying to gather support for a commission to be appointed by President Barack Obama that would set the course for higher education in America, according to a Nov. 21 article on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.

The initiative is inspired by President Harry S. Truman’s presidential committee of 1947, which established community colleges and made higher education more accessible after World War II. Gregorian argues that higher education is in as much need of direction now as it was then, and that a presidential commission is key to creating a better system, according to the article.

College students and institutions face many problems, such as rising tuition costs, loan debt and unemployment after graduation. They need guidance but not solely from a presidential commission. The Bush administration’s commission, chaired by former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, faced considerable backlash when it published its 2006 report on higher education. For example, the American Association of University Professors called the report “seriously flawed.”

Robert Berdahl, former president of the Association of American Universities, said in a 2006 statement that the report “fails to acknowledge the variety of innovations initiated by college and university faculty to improve teaching and learning on our campuses.” One member of Bush’s commission, David Ward, former president of the American Council on Education, refused to sign the report because he disagreed with parts of it.

Expecting different types of institutions to agree on a single set of recommendations for America’s diverse higher education system is a bit too hopeful. That’s not to say that a presidential commission wouldn’t be effective, but it is hardly a panacea for all of the problems with higher education.

Obama can start making changes to higher education immediately by making it a top priority. It shouldn’t take a commission to determine that tuition should be more affordable. Hopefully, Obama will be able to implement his policy proposals that would give colleges incentives to lower tuition, such as the Race to The Top Fund, enacted in 2009, which rewards colleges for making cost-saving reforms.

If the president does establish a committee on higher education reform, all eyes will be on who is selected for membership. Ideally, the commission would include current students and recent graduates, or someone who can speak for students dealing with debt. Such a commission could provide much needed guidance to college institutions, but Obama can still do plenty for students in the meantime.