The American Dream

October 02, 2006

Margaret Spellings isn't just the U.S. education secretary. She's also the mother of a college student, which explains her interest in simplifying the process by which students (or their parents) apply for federal financial aid. Anyone who has ever wrestled with the notorious FAFSA paperwork knows it makes filing income tax forms look like a piece of cake.

Streamlining that process is just one of the generally sensible recommendations in a report released recently by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The commission, established a year ago by the Bush administration, highlights important issues related to access and affordability at the nation's almost 4,000 colleges and universities.

A quality higher education is still beyond the reach of many Americans at a time when it is increasingly valuable. Among the reasons for that, the commission found, are rising tuition costs, lack of accessibility to need-based financial aid and poor student preparation in high school.

Some of the recommended remedies make good sense: streamlining the federal financial aid process, offering more need-based aid to give low-income students greater access to public and private institutions, and pushing high schools and colleges to work together more aggressively to ensure that students leave high school ready for higher-level work.

Other recommendations are far more problematic. The commission's proposal that colleges begin testing students regularly to see if schools are meeting their academic goals, and Ms. Spellings' call for a national database to track students' progress, are queasy-making, to say the least, given the Bush administration's lack of restraint in micromanaging elementary and secondary education and its even more alarming penchant for collecting personal data on its citizens.

Higher education in the United States is not in crisis; in fact, it's so good that students come from all over the world to take advantage of it. But the commission expressed concerns that higher ed here is slipping compared with schools in other industrialized nations, so some fixes may be in order; the new report should help that along. American higher ed, however, doesn't need an overhaul - or increased federal oversight.

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