Sen. Alexander: Higher Education: America’s Secret Weapon For Future Success

Friday, December 16, 2005 - by Sen. Alexander

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to address the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Nashville. I offered the commission six suggestions on how we can take our country’s remarkable system of higher education – the best in the world – and strengthen it so it can play a pivotal role in helping Americans keep good-paying jobs in the United States.

First, I suggested they urge the Administration to make the National Academies’ “Augustine Report” a centerpiece of President Bush’s State of the Union address in January and the focus of his remaining three years in office.

As 2005 ends, we Americans – who constitute just five percent of the world’s population – will once again produce nearly thirty percent of the world’s wealth. Most of this good fortune comes from the American advantage in brainpower: an educated workforce and our science and technology. Yet I am worried that America may be losing its brainpower advantage. Most Americans who travel to China, India, Finland, Singapore and Ireland come home saying, “Watch out.”

So in May 2005, Senators Pete Domenici, Jeff Bingaman and I asked the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine the question, “What are the ten top actions, in priority order, that federal policy makers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so the United States can successfully compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st century?”

The National Academies responded by assembling a distinguished panel headed by Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin. The panel’s report, released October12, found I am right to be worried:

Chemical companies closed 70 facilities in the United States in 2004 and have tagged 40 more for shutdown. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the United States and 50 are in China.
U.S. 12th graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science.
In 2001, U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development.
Among the Augustine Report’s twenty recommendations were to:

Recruit 10,000 new science and math teachers with four-year scholarships and train 250,000 current teachers in summer institutes.
Triple the number of students who take Advanced Placement math and science exams.
Increase federal funding for basic research in the physical sciences by 10 percent a year for seven years.
Provide 30,000 scholarships and graduate fellowships for scientists.
Give American companies a bigger research and development tax credit so they will keep their good jobs here instead of moving them offshore.

Second, I suggested that the commission recommend that presidents of the United States appoint a lead advisor to coordinate all federal government responsibilities for higher education.

My greatest regret as U.S. Education Secretary was that I did not volunteer to be that lead person. Secretary Spellings has assumed at least some of that responsibility, but the authority of the Secretary of Education over higher education is somewhat like the authority of a university president: overestimated. Almost every agency of the federal government has something to do with higher education, tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are invested every year and someone should be looking at all of this in a coordinated way.

Third, I urged the commission to join me on the bandwagon for deregulation of higher education.

The greatest threat to the quality of American higher education is not under-funding, it is overregulation. The key to the quality of our higher education system is that it is not a system. It is a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous institutions. Yet each one of our 6,000 higher education institutions that accepts students with federal grants and loans must wade through over 7,000 regulations and notices. The president of Stanford has said that seven cents of every tuition dollar is spent on compliance with governmental regulations.

Fourth, I urge the Congress to overhaul the Medicaid program and free states from outdated federal court consent decrees so that states may properly fund colleges and universities.

Nationally, during the period from 2000 to 2004, state spending for Medicaid was up 36 percent, while state spending for higher education was up only 6.8 percent. As one result, tuition was up 38 percent. The story in Tennessee was worse. Medicaid spending was up 71 percent, while higher education spending was up only 10.5 percent, and tuition was up 43 percent.

When I left the governor’s office in 1987, Tennessee was spending 51 cents of each state tax dollar on education and 16 cents on health care, mainly Medicaid. Today it is 40 cents on education and 26 cents on health care, mainly Medicaid. Congress should give states more authority over Medicaid standards and more ability to terminate outdated federal court consent decrees that remove decision-making authority from elected officials.

Fifth, I urged the commission to put a spotlight on the greatest disappointment in higher education today: colleges of education.

“At a time when America’s schools face a critical demand for effective principals and superintendents, the majority of programs that prepare school leaders range in quality from inadequate to poor.” Those are not my words, but those of a new report by Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

In 1983, when I asked colleges of education to help me find a fair way to pay teachers more for teaching well, they said it couldn’t be done. So we invented our own system for thousands of teachers, with virtually no help from the very people who are in business to figure out such things. And still today, the lack of differential pay is the major obstacle to quality teaching.

Finally, I hope the commission will put a spotlight on the greatest threat to broader public support and funding for higher education: the growing political one-sidedness which has infected most campuses and an absence of true diversity of opinion.

There is more to this charge of one-sidedness than the academic community would like to admit. How many conservative speakers are invited to deliver commencement addresses? How many colleges require courses in U.S. history? How many even teach Western Civilization? How many bright, young faculty members are encouraged to earn dissertations in the failures of bilingual education or on the virtues of vouchers or charter schools?

I am not surprised that most faculties express liberal views, vote Democratic and that most faculty members resist authority. But I am disappointed when true diversity of thought is discouraged in the name of a preferred brand of diversity. This one-sidedness is not good for students, it is not good for the pursuit of truth, and it undermines broad public support for higher education. The solution to this political rigidity lies not in Washington, D.C., but in the hands of trustees, deans and faculty members themselves.

I salute Secretary Spellings and her distinguished commission, and I look forward to their recommendations. Higher education is America’s secret weapon for its future success. Other than the war against terror, keeping our brain power advantage so we can create new jobs here in the United States and keep our jobs from going to China, India, Finland, and Ireland, is the biggest challenge we face as a nation. Keeping our brain power advantage is the surest way to keep America on top.

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