Last Tuesday I suggested it would be an interesting parlor game to speculate whether a Bologna-like template might have resulted in more reform of U.S. higher education than resulted from the work of the Spellings Commission.
In any event, here is my imaginary scenario which substitutes a “Spellings Process” for a “Spellings Commission.”
Phase 1: April 2005 – March 2006. Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launches a multi-year process focusing on the future of American higher education. The two primary goals she wants the process to focus on are expanding access to higher education and insuring that an American college education remains affordable. During this initial year she quietly meets with a wide variety of college and university leaders, the leaders of higher education’s national associations, and a goodly number of policy wonks. By mid year she begins to convene a limited number of working groups charged with suggesting the key initiatives on which a national higher education policy ought to focus.
By the February 2006 these discussions begin coalescing around two key proposals: 1) A total redesign of the federal system of student financial aid; and 2) a plan to make a three-year baccalaureate degree the nation’s standard undergraduate degree. The first proposal derives from a growing consensus that the current system of federal aid is too cumbersome, too dysfunctional, and too much a collection of special interests to really achieve the broad access the Secretary seeks. The three-year baccalaureate degree has as its principal attraction an immediate 25-percent reduction in the price of an undergraduate education. As those working on this idea quickly discover, however, the proposal also offers the prospect of breaking the institutional gridlock that now derails nearly every attempt to broadly change undergraduate education in the United States. To move to a three-year baccalaureate degree will require a truly national discussion focusing on the purposes of an undergraduate education — precisely the kind of discussion that Derek Bok’s new book, Our Underachieving Colleges, has just called for.
Phase 2: April 2006 – March 2007. This phase is kicked off with a higher education summit presided over by President Bush and attended by all 50 state governors. In carefully prepared sessions the president, his secretary of education, and her staff, supported by the key participants of Phase 1, succeed in winning a bipartisan political commitment to the principal of redesigning federal student aid and moving the United States to a three-year baccalaureate degree. At the conclusion of the summit, the 50 governors pledge to designate their state’s chief educational officers as the public officials charged with making sure every state is fully engaged in the planning necessary to implement the principles the governors have just endorsed. This planning to plan and then planning to implement activity consumes the balance of the year with the chief educational officers meeting all together three times over the next 11 months.
Phase 3. April 2007 – March 2008. With the outlines of a plan of action — though perhaps a better term would be, a pathway to change — in hand, Secretary Spellings turns back to the key actors she worked with in this process’s first year — institutional leaders, association leaders, and policy wonks — to develop specific plans of action for simultaneous consideration by the U.S. Congress and the 50 state legislators. Meetings — both large and small public, as well as quasi-private — continue to be held with the explicit purpose of sustaining the consensus to move forward even in the face of a growing opposition from a number of special interest groups who have known all along their power resides in business as usual.
At this point there is a pause in the process to await the results of the 2008 national elections. But regardless of which party wins, there will have been sufficient bipartisan involvement to make it difficult to derail the effort. No doubt another four-year cycle of meetings, consultations, presidential convenings, and public discussion will follow. Patience will become an important strategy in itself. The pay-off will be a recast federal system of student financial aid and a reinvigorated undergraduate curriculum that is less costly to deliver and more open to continuous change.
Could it happen this way? Could the process be truly bipartisan? Could the 50 states actually work together and work with the U.S. Congress in implementing a process of purposeful change. Given the enormous sums of money involved in federal student aid, could the standpatters ever be won over? Probably not, but at least it is worth thinking about.