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Republican Higher Ed Reform?

A Bush-sanctioned commission on the status of higher education recently released a report advocating a broad shake-up in higher education. Among its myriad recommendations, the report endorsed standardized tests, federal monitoring of college quality and sweeping changes in financial aid.

As Andy first reported, it kind of suggests something like 'No College Student Left Behind'.

Some of these recommendations seem sound, like an extension of the Pell Grant system. Pell Grants have long been one of the key rungs on the ladder to social mobility, and over the last 25 years, their monetary value has not kept pace with the rising cost of college tuition. The federal government might also want to tailor the grants to give bigger incentives to students who are studying socially useful fields (e.g. math and science), rather than say, underwater basket weaving.

But standardized tests? Get real. While I can appreciate the utility (and understand the caveats) in using standardized tests in the admissions process for both undergraduate and graduate programs, the diversity of student coursework at the collegiate level would make it impossible to implement any type of meaningful standardized testing system.

This is not to mention the fact that there’s also the issue of how to deal with the introduction of new fields of study—something that research institutions are charged with creating and teaching. Sure, it might be easy to create a standardized test for ninth grade algebra, but how does one properly standardize coursework in newly emerging fields? Of course—maybe I am biased—since the founding of Cornell, its professors have practically invented some fields, like American literature, human development, labor relations, or hotel management.

As for the proposed “federal monitoring of college quality”, I can understand the spirit of the idea—it would be nice to have a gauge of how much value-added a college or university really brings, rather than just measure the quality of its incoming students. But I’m not certain that anything the bureaucratic types in Washington, D.C. could dream up would be better than the current system of regional accreditation.

When I was growing up, the Republicans were the party that wanted to eradicate the Department of Education. But times have apparently changed.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 14, 2006 (#)

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