Archived Speeches

Rodney A. Erickson Remarks
Spellings Commission Report
Committee on Educational Policy
Board of Trustees
Friday, November 17, 2006

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Slide 1: Title Slide

  • Commission on the Future of Higher Education was created in September 2005 by U.S. secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to explore issues of access, affordability, quality, and accountability in higher education. Report made public in September 2006.

  • 9 members - public officials, researchers, academic and business leaders; led by Charles Miller, former chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System

Slide 2: Commission on the Future of Higher Education Report

  • The Commission's Report provides much food for thought, although it is quite difficult to capture the essence of a sector as complex as higher education in 30 pages of text.

  • The Commission's Report is a mixed message of laudatory comments about the American system of higher education, generally regarded as the envy of the rest of the world, and concerns about deficiencies in the current performance of higher education.

  • The Report cites the growing competitive threat from other nations in which student achievement is
    outpacing that of American students, yet it neglects to note that these other nations have invested more heavily in education than the United States in recent years.

  • The Commission's report also warns of "warranted complacency" about the future of American higher education, and cites concerns about unprepared students entering higher education, college graduates lacking the skills that employers need, and a lack of information about the cost and quality of post-secondary institutions.

  • There is much to commend the Report, but it also raises many issues that are not adequately addressed.

  • The Report focuses mainly on what have come to be know as the three A's: the Access, Affordability, and Accountability of Higher Education

Let's take a closer look at the Findings, the Recommendations, and what they might imply for Penn State and for higher education.

Slide 3: Access - Concerns

The Commission reported that access to college is limited by inadequate high school preparation, lack of information about college opportunities, and financial barriers. College attendance rates have improved, but graduation rates have not improved nearly as much, and completion rates for low-income and minority students remain far too low.

  • For higher education as a whole, there is considerable truth to this finding with respect to graduation rates. Graduation rates for many institutions, even among some of our peer research institutions, are unacceptably low given the quality of students who enter these programs.

  • Too many students graduating from high school are not well prepared to enter college. Too many resources are expended in remedial courseware across higher education that shouldn't be necessary. This has required significant additional resources devoted to special courses, learning centers, tutoring, and other remedial measures than should otherwise be needed.

  • Minority students both enter and graduate at far lower rates than their majority counterparts; many do not even bother to consider attending or apply believing that a college education is beyond their means.

  • With nearly 40 percent of post-secondary student being part-time adult students nationally, colleges and universities have not done enough to both encourage and facilitate their participation.

Slide 4: Access - Recommendations

Commission's Recommendations: Create a "seamless pathway" between high school and college by aligning K-12 graduation standards with college expectations. Provide incentives for post-secondary institutions to collaborate with elementary and secondary schools to help with college preparation of students.

Slide 5: Access - Penn State Has

We publicize widely the high school course requirements for admission as well how we evaluate courseware for transfer students.

  • Offer many programs to assist traditionally undeserved students, e.g. Multicultural Resource Center, Office for Disability Services, the Center for Adult Learner Services. The Colleges offer summer programs for prospective students.

  • Penn State, through the College of Education, works closely with many school districts in the Commonwealth to assist them in improving their curriculum, pedagogy, and college-preparation programs. There is also a strong partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

  • Penn State has been moving more aggressively to become more adult student-friendly. A recent task force has made recommendations for all of our campuses to serve better the adult student population, and we will move to implement those recommendations.

Slide 6: Cost & Affordability - Concerns

Concerns: College costs consistently outpace inflation and concerns about affordability affect students, families, and policymakers. There are limited incentives for colleges and universities to improve efficiency and productivity. However,

  • There is little notice of the fact that financial support for public higher education has not kept pace with inflation and, in some cases been reduced in absolute dollars, as mandates and commitments for medical assistance, corrections, and other sectors of the budget have crowded out funding for higher education.

  • Colleges and universities are not subject to the same market forces as a typical household in the CPI; increasing costs of personnel including benefits like health care, technology for teaching and research, and large bills for deferred maintenance all contribute to more rapidly rising costs as measured by the HEPI.

  • The report does not sufficiently take into account the fact that there is a wide variety of choice of institutional types available to prospective college students at a wide variety of costs of attendance, from community colleges to elite private universities, where the costs of attendance will never be the same.

Slide 7: Cost & Affordability - Recommendations

Recommendations: Focused program of cost-cutting and productivity improvements in colleges and universities. Lower costs for students by reducing barriers for transfer students and encouraging high school-based college courses.

  • The Commission is right on track in pushing colleges and universities to engage in cost-cutting and productivity improvements.

  • Transfer policies should be transparent and let students know up front whether and how the course work they take at one institution will be treated by another.

  • High school-based college courses are beneficial inasmuch as they naturally lead students into a post-secondary track, build confidence in students, and encourage a seamless transition-provided these courses are college-level and not "13th grade."

Slide 8: Cost & Affordability - Penn State Has Been

  • We have taken steps to control costs while improving quality. We have long ago cut out the fat, gone through the muscle, and some of our units would say we are down in the bone. We continue our efforts through the Cost Savings Task Force, which has identified millions of dollars in savings over the past several years.

  • Penn State is working to improve productivity by streamlining curricula, reducing low enrollment sections, careful review of teaching load policies with selective increases, and using blended learning courses, which have been demonstrated to increase learning outcomes at reduced costs.

Slide 9 - Web Transfer Guide

  • Penn State's web-based transfer guide is a model in higher education. Penn State transfers over 50,000 credits from other institutions in a typical year. There are over 247,000 courses from 2,378 institutions listed on the Penn State credit transfer site.

  • Penn State works closely with high schools in the vicinity of our campuses. We have more than 600 high school students who are concurrently enrolled at Penn State. We are taking advantage of the Commonwealth's programs to encourage such enrollment. We are actively seeking to partner with SCASD on a plan to exchange a limited number of faculty to teach a course at the other's department.

Slide 10: Financial Aid - Concerns

Concerns: The financial aid system is confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative, and often does not direct aid to the students who need it most.

  • We concur.

  • Lower middle income families are most adversely affected; they have too much income/assets to qualify for assistance, but not enough to afford the colleges and universities where they would like to send their children.

  • Higher income families have been able to take advantage of low interest loans and, in some case, even turn a profit on the transactions.

  • The financial aid system works against part-time, adult, independent students who would like to "test their wings" in college or work their way back in.

Slide 11: Financial Aid - Recommendations

Consolidate the federal financial aid programs, streamline processes, and replace the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) with a shorter and simpler application; highly educated people report that the process is confusing. Get the financial aid offers out earlier in the recruitment cycle.

Slide 12: Financial Aid - Penn State Has Been

  • We try to provide clear and timely information about financial aid awards to prospective and current students, but earlier information from financial aid providers would be very helpful to our students

Slide 13: Office of Student Aid Web Page

  • Our Office of Student Aid provides a clear path for students seeking to understand or apply for financial aid. Includes frequently asked questions, application completion dates, and even a way for admitted students to estimate their financial aid package.

Slide 14: Scholarship Spending for Undergraduates, 1994-95 to 2005-06 (graph)

  • We have offered increased merit-based and need-based scholarships to students from both institutional funding and through private fundraising, with a significant increase seen since 1994-95.

Slide 15: Financial Aid - Penn State Has Been (continued)

  • The centerpiece of the next fundraising campaign for Penn State will be student support.

  • Penn State is working hard to keep tuition as low as possible while still providing a high quality education with multiple points of entry.

Slide 16: Learning - Concerns

Concern: Quality of student learning at U.S. colleges and universities is inadequate and, in some cases, declining, while other nations are improving their higher education systems. This has consequences for employers and for American competitiveness in the global economy.

  • Quality across institutions is spotty. Too many students are lacking strong communications and analytical skills.

  • The inadequacies in math and sciences begin at the K-12 level where many students begin a pattern of avoidance that extends into college; the National Academies report, The Gathering Storm, should be a wake-up call that is widely read among the public, educators, and public officials. We are progressively abdicating our national intellectual capital in science and engineering to other countries, and the U.S. has become highly dependent upon foreign students and workers to fuel our technology and productivity pipeline.

Slide 17: Learning - Recommendations

The Commission recommended improving student learning through new pedagogies, curricula, and technologies.

  • This is a valid goal for all institutions, and we believe our peer institutions are as committed to achieving it as Penn State is. The issues mainly revolve around how learning outcomes are measured.

Slide 18: Learning - Penn State Has

  • Emphasis is placed on improving student learning in all of our colleges and centrally supported units. Example: Teaching and Learning with Technology with its focus on teaching and learning styles, teaching with media, measures of learning. Example: the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Effectiveness with its emphasis on learning assessment and pedagogical improvement. Example: the Dutton e-Education Institute with its emphasis on using technology to improve teaching and learning in the Earth Sciences.

  • Constant curricular improvements. Example: common design curriculum for first-year students across all majors in Arts & Architecture.

  • A Coordinating Committee on University Assessment was charged in February 2005 to develop a university-wide assessment plan that prioritizes the University's assessment needs related to student learning. Leadership for the committee is provided by Undergraduate Education, and the current chair is Renata Engel whom you will hear from in January regarding Penn State's approach to learning outcomes assessment.

  • Penn State was cited in the report on our ten-year re-accreditation by the Middle States Commission as a national leaders in learning outcome assessment. The challenge to us has been to develop a University-wide strategic plan that provides what I have described as "the circuitry that links together a thousand points of light."

  • This is not an easy task. Yes, there are some common elements across our 230 baccalaureate degree programs, but there are many unique elements as well.

  • There has been much concern that Secretary Spellings and the Commission wish to push higher education into a "No Child Left Behind" model with standardized testing as the common denominator.

  • Many in higher education, myself included, are skeptical about the reliability of testing in all but the most general sense. Surely, there are foundational elements of education that can be tested, but how do you test the educational outcomes of students in chemical engineering against those in philosophy or those in marketing?

  • Standardized testing is an easy and quick answer to a complex matter, and private companies in the testing companies are pushing their own products such as the post-SAT and post-ACT exams-which are obviously very big business.

  • The test of the marketplace is one that shouldn't be overlooked, and different educational institutions are obviously met with very different results there

    The Commission Report is surprisingly silent on the role of regional and specialized accreditors and their role in assessing the learning outcomes of students. Most specialized accreditors are fundamentally concerned with learning now, having moved at least partly away from the traditional and overwhelming measurement of resource inputs.

Slide 19: Transparency and Accountability - Concerns

Concern: Inadequate transparency and accountability for measuring institutional performance. Universities should provide more information on student access, retention, student learning, educational costs.

  • This is a legitimate concern. It is currently too difficult to get information from too many colleges and universities about their basic data and performance measures. Spend some time on the web and you will be frustrated at the difficulty of navigating and accessing basic information.

Slide 20: Transparency and Accountability - Recommendations

Universities should provide more data on their costs, student aid, and measures of student success such as student learning and graduation rates.

  • The greatest difficulty here concerns the costs of attendance. This will never be a perfect system inasmuch as it is different for every prospective student. Tuition levels change with level in the degree progress and the particular curriculum chosen; some students are residential students and others are commuters; out-of-pocket costs for books and course materials, transportation and other costs can vary widely among individual students.

  • And, most importantly, access to financial aid is an individually determined amount based on qualification for federal and/or state student aid packages, institutional need-based aid, and merit-based scholarships.

  • Private universities have the most difficulty with this concept, and I can sympathize with them. There is literally no common cost of attendance data possible given the wide range of tuition discounting that occurs both across institutions and across individual students in any given college or university.
Slide 21: Transparency and Accountability - Penn State Provides

  • Penn State already makes available most of the information that the Commission is calling for.

Slide 22 - Public Accountability Web page
  • Penn State has Public Accountability web pages with information on tuition and fees, and student financial aid opportunities.

  • Data on student retention and graduation rates are prominently displayed, and we're rightly proud of our record; but we believe we can be even more successful as a student-centered university that only admits students we believe can be successful.

Slide 23: University Budget Office - Operating Expenditures Earth & Mineral Sciences

  • I don't know of many other universities that provide this level of detail about the budget.

Slide 24: Transparency and Accountability - Discussion

  • I, and I believe most of my colleagues in the administration, support the notion of a unit record for students so that we can more easily track the outcomes of students who move in and out of Penn State. Unfortunately, some public universities and most private institutions are almost uniformly against such a system, citing mainly student privacy concerns. So we are left to rely on the national student aid clearinghouse, a voluntary organization that is not a complete universe of students.

  • Credit transfer information, as I noted previously, is readily available

  • Data on Penn State's budget is prominently provided, including archival data going back several years.

  • Data on expenditures by academic and administrative unit is provided at a high level of detail and disaggregation, much more so than you would find-at least this easily-at most other public or private institutions.

  • One of the most contentious issues in the Report concerns the concept of "value added" in the educational process and how it is measured. Private and highly selective private colleges have been particularly vocal in their concerns about this concept, based on the fact that they admit the best prepared and highest achieving students who may not demonstrate as much "value added" as low achieving and ill-prepared students who are given a chance in post-secondary education. As a scholar of economic geography and regional economics myself for the past 35 years, I can attest to the difficulties of measuring and interpreting the concept of "value added."

  • Similarly, accurate and up-to-date data on the placement rates and outcomes of graduates are notoriously difficult to come by, and any data that can be provided obviously represent only a snapshot of a highly dynamic process of the labor market.
Slide 25: Innovation - Concerns

Concern: Lack of entrepreneurship in trying new methods of teaching and in meeting the public's need for lifelong learning.

  • This is true for too many post-secondary institutions.

Slide 26: Innovation - Recommendations

Universities should embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement, particularly in developing new strategies to improve learning in science and mathematics. There is a need to develop a national strategy for lifelong learning.

Slide 27: Innovation: Penn State Has

  • Long-term commitment to continuous quality improvement to all areas of the University, including instruction. Specific examples: Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Blended Learning Initiative, World Campus, and the broader vision of Penn State Online.

What's the Bottom Line? A Quick Summary

Slide 28: Strengths of the Report

  • Commitment to access for all qualified students, and call for more student aid
  • Highlights the plight of the underserved population and the importance of reaching this broad segment of our society
  • Value of innovation in teaching and learning, and learning outcomes assessment
  • Importance of accountability and transparency
  • Recognizes the need for primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions to be better aligned for student success

Slide 29: Weaknesses of the Report

  • Largely neglects the role of faculty
  • Report has a narrow economic focus on job readiness to the exclusion of an educated citizenry
  • Report views higher education as a single system rather than in its institutional diversity: private and public universities; the range of institutions from community and technical colleges to world-class research universities
  • Report is silent on graduate education
  • A sense of simple solutions to complex problems
  • Does not sufficiently recognize the high level of accountability that already exists and build on that base

Slide 30: Next Steps: A Political Process

  • Many of the actions recommended by the Commission require legislative approval, so there will be continued discussion.

  • Senate appears to be less enamored with the Report than the House, even before the November 7 Congressional elections.

  • Support for higher education will most likely continue by continuing resolution, with the lame duck Congress concerned with other matters.

  • There will continue to be discussions and lobbying in advance of future consideration of Higher Education Reauthorization legislation.

  • Lobbying may be most intense by private institutions and their associations that vehemently oppose the unit record for students and other requirements for transparency.

    I hope that I have been able to give you (1) some additional information on these important issues, (2) an indication that Penn State has already been doing most of the university-directed recommendations found in the Spellings Commission Report, and (3) stimulated some commentary and questions from the Board.



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