Letter to the New York Times

December 10, 2007

Letters to the Editor
New York Times

To the Editor:

David Brooks eloquently captures the value of American higher education to society, and the private-public dynamics that drive it (“Our World Cup Edge,” June 22). Twenty years from now, unfortunately, his column may be the only way to remember what colleges and universities were once able to provide the nation. Look at the language in the Higher Education Act legislation on Capitol Hill, and at the proposals coming out of the Department of Education’s Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. They seem to envision America emulating Europe’s centralized, bureaucrat-heavy, government-run colleges and universities. The result of any such action would be the same as in Europe – a stagnant, complacent, and isolated academia of diminishing value to society. That’s no way to compete in the global arena.

Under the rallying call of “accountability,” policymakers and bureaucrats in Washington are pushing ahead on efforts that would erode institutional autonomy at private colleges and expand federal control over fundamental institutional responsibilities: admissions, prices, and student assessment. These officials seem to have lost faith in the free market, and want to replace Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” with an iron fist.

As reported in the Times and elsewhere, the Spellings Commission recently explored a one-size-fits-all exam for every college student in the nation, regardless of program, mission, or institution. It is also seriously considering a proposal that the federal government become the sole accrediting body for colleges and universities. Such a move would mean replacing a decentralized self-governing system that’s become a model for European nations undergoing educational reform. The idea of a centralized national database tracking college students, their grades, financial aid information, and enrollment -- regardless of whether they receive federal aid -- is being championed by some in the administration, Congress, and Spellings Commission. This idea, first reported in the Times two years ago, is anathema to the democratic underpinnings of higher education and American society.

The days of great federal investments in higher education for the wellbeing of the nation – the G.I. Bill and the Land-Grant acts come to mind -- may also be destined for the scrap heap of history. Congress has not increased funding for the maximum Pell Grant in five years. Five federal financial aid programs providing access for the nation's neediest students have been recommended for elimination. Unless the president and Congress reverse course quickly, the outlook for this year is grim.

We need more policymakers who remember what transformative, productive things our colleges and universities can achieve when allowed to operate free of government intrusion. Otherwise, 20 years from now, a soccer team may be the only thing that’s globally competitive about America.  


David L. Warren
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
Washington DC

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