Higher Ed Needs More Than A Check
(BOSTON) * Monday's opening general session of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual meeting focused on higher education as lawmakers heard that the nation is struggling and the largely state-created system of higher education needs more from Legislatures than just a blank check. 

Dubbed The Big Squeeze: The Challenges to Higher Education, the general session comes on the heels of a 2006 report issued by NCSL's Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education that found the "American higher education system no longer is the best in the world." 

That report concluded that it "has become clear that the states and the federal government have neglected their responsibilities to ensure a high-quality college education for all citizens." As a result, the Blue Ribbon Commission report concluded, "U.S. citizens are not achieving their full potential, state economies are suffering, and the United States is less competitive in the global economy." 

The national focus on higher education comes as Michigan continues to struggle with a $1.8 billion (FY 2008) budget deficit and both lawmakers and the governor have repeatedly cut state funding for higher education. 

The report from the Blue Ribbon Commission was the focus of a short 10-minute video presentation at this morning's general session. The presentation was followed by a roundtable discussion moderated by former North Carolina Gov. Jim HUNT. 

Hunt further illuminated the challenges facing the United States and the various 50 states in the arena of higher education. 

"We were last of 14 nations in raising the college-going rate," Hunt pointed out. "The percentage [of students that] go to college * we've virtually had no increases in this since the 1990s." 

Hunt argued that the U.S. system of higher education has accomplished enormous things and set the global standard. However, he pointed out, most of those accomplishments came in the 1900s and few have come since. 

"Seven nations are ahead of us in the percent of adults with a four-year college degree," Hunt said, as he also pointed out that in the last 25 years the United States has made no progress in closing the gap between low-income Americans and other Americans. 

At the same time, Hunt noted that China has made a commitment to increase their college graduates ten-fold. 

"We were the best," Hunt added. "Where are we now?" 

The country needs to change how it views higher education, said Hank BROWN, president of the University of Colorado. Rather than focusing on graduation rates, or getting a piece of paper, the focus should be on what students are learning. 

Patrick CALLEN, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, concurred with Brown about the importance of measuring education not just graduation. State lawmakers also need to stop the "mission creep" in institutions of higher education and the number of staff spending less time with students. 

"We have to ask ourselves how much better is research * because our staff is teaching less? I'm not sure the results would be that positive," he said. 

Phyllis EISEN, senior vice president and director of the Center for Workforce Success at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), also provided lawmakers with an assessment of how employers are viewing the products coming out of higher education institutions. 

"There's a lot of concern in the business community, as you know," Eisen said. "There's a skills gap. It's broad. It's wide and it's not being filled." 

Generally, businesses are satisfied with the skills of students coming out of higher education institutions (82 percent for community college graduates and 86 percent for four-year universities). 

"Sadly, that's not good enough in [a globally competitive] climate," she noted. 

Job providers are looking for students that can think differently. "They need them to be flexible and agile and be able to move from discipline to discipline," she added. "Everybody is cross-trained now-a-days." 

She remarked that it's this worker-flexibility business leaders seek and are most concerned about. 

Brown pointed out institutions of higher education also need to be more customer-oriented. He noted that the fastest-growing university in the United States, the University of Phoenix, is growing because it focuses on where students want to learn and when they want to learn. He questioned how many publicly funded, four-year universities or community colleges were offering both evening and weekend classes. 

"The day when you could simply write a check for higher education is gone," Brown told the nation's state lawmakers. "They [universities] need your help."