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Hechinger Institute Takes Its Show on the Road

Higher education reporters from around the country gathered in San Francisco for the Hechinger Institute seminar on Costs, Access, and Politics of Higher Education. The seminar was held in partnership with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which is located in San Jose, California. This is the first time that the Hechinger Institute held a seminar in a location other than the Teachers College campus.

Since July 1997, the Hechinger Institute has offered seminars to education reporters and editorial writers, with sessions focusing on specific areas of interest to the writers and their readers. Hechinger and the National Center joined together to examine issues surrounding the costs, access and politics of higher education. Patrick Callan, Executive Director of the Center, and Gene Maeroff, Director of the Hechinger Institute, served as moderators.

David Breneman of the University of Virginia and retired President of the American Council on Education, the umbrella group on higher education, was a panelist in a session exploring how issues of cost and access became politicized. Speaking about the trends in financial aid from the G.I. Bill, to the policy of the 1970s to grant aid to people with low income, to the recent trend of dropping accessibility in favor of affordability, Breneman noted that some fear that too many people are entering higher education. "Affordability has become a code word for helping middle and higher income families to pay for college," he said.

Other speakers discussed the outlook for opportunity to attend college in the United States, remedial education, technology issues, and state and federal involvement in higher education. A panel of representatives from the College Board, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Council on Education, and Public Agenda looked at the affordability of higher education.

Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at the American Council on Education, discussed findings that while the general public knows the importance of higher education, they are in the dark when it comes to knowing how to pay for college. Hartle said there is no easy way for the public to get the information they need, but he did mention a Web site, www.collegeispossible.org, that could enable people to make more informed choices.

Reporters Karen Arenson of The New York Times and Douglas Lederman of The Chronicle of Higher Education addressed "How Politics Affects Higher Education Policy." Lederman noted that because higher education avoids making pacts and does not lobby as much as other industries, colleges have little political clout and are easy targets for lawmakers. The perception that colleges do not police themselves well leads politicians to make higher education justify what it is doing. "Lawmakers view colleges not as institutions to produce informed citizens, but skilled workers," Lederman said. And, they want to get colleges to act as productive businesses by pressuring them with standards and accountability.

Richard Vedder, a Professor of Economics at Ohio University, was a panelist in a session on "Can Higher Education Be More Productive." Vedder noted that, "Wall Street predicts rapid growth in credentialing of skills by the for-profit sector." Private companies such as Microsoft are holding exams to certify skills. Institutes of higher education, he said, need to raise their own productivity to compete, by increasing teaching loads, modifying tenure to include post-tenure review, eliminating marginal Ph.D.s and using distance learning.

Duncan Wyse, President of the Oregon Business Council, also discussed the gap between what employers want and what higher education provides. The main problem, he said, is that graduates of institutions of higher education, according to surveys, are not ready to go into their fields. "They can't write well and they don't have technical skills," he said.

"These are the issues that higher education writers are most likely to write about in their coverage," Maeroff said. "At this seminar, we tried to look at these issues ahead into the new century."

Maeroff said that The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's expertise in policy issues served the needs of this particular group well. "Until this past year, they had a sole focus on California," he said. "Now they are doing it on a national basis."

One of the Center's missions is to conduct public policy research and studies in areas relevant to the higher educational needs of the nation over the next 15 to 20 years. It will look at who is and who should be served by higher education, financing mechanisms, and the effect that decision-making structures have on the ability of colleges to serve the public.

Its other mission is to stimulate public discussion and debate around the key higher education policy issues that face state and federal governments. It also looks at policy issues that influence the relationships of higher education and American society. The Center is not affiliated with any institution of higher education or with any government agency. This enables the Center to help overcome problems that block the development and public discussion of alternative higher education policies.

Callan said, "As a foundation funded for public interest, we want to encourage a better public discourse about higher education and its future in the country. That includes trying to be as helpful as we can to the press and other media as a resource and in connecting them to people who can be helpful."

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