Some UC Scholars, Students Critical of Higher Education Act

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Despite being five years in the making, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 is fielding criticism from UC scholars and student leaders, who argue the legislation fails to fully address accountability.

Signed by President George Bush in August, the act is the first full reauthorization in a decade of the Higher Education Act, originally enacted in 1965 to broaden higher education opportunities through federal programs.

A central focus of the legislation, which is now undergoing a revisionary period by the U.S. Department of Education to finalize its wording, was to provide greater accountability within higher education-a goal which critics think Congress could have better achieved.

Student leaders said some provisions in the act that attempt to hold schools accountable may in fact be harmful. One worrisome provision attempts to prevent states from cutting funds to colleges and universities.

Under the provision, if states decrease their investment in higher education funds, the federal government will match that reduction, said UC Student Regent D'Artagnan Scorza. Since wording has not been finalized, legislators have not decided when provisions will be implemented.

"Every time we get cut from the state we would get the same cut from our federal funding," he said. "It's like a double hit."

Because its role is not to support or govern universities, the federal government has a limited number of tools it can use to keep schools accountable, namely its control of research funding and financial aid, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"The only thing Congress can really do is to hold back or increase financial aid," he said. "The problem is they are really punishing or rewarding students for the actions of institutions."

Many federal officials supported these new accountability measures, but said the legislation does not go far enough.

"While the legislation takes some positive steps forward ... it falls short on strengthening accountability," said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in a statement. "More work can-and must-be done to make achievement outcomes more transparent to students and families."

Additionally, new regulations implemented by the act may negatively impact the university, said Carolyn Heinrich, lead legislative director on education for the university. Though the university supports greater transparency and accessibility, increased reporting of information, mandated by the act, may lead to duplication of data, she said.

"I think our students are pretty much getting this information already," she said. "We want to be transparent but we don't want to report the same information in five different formats."

Furthermore, the format of the information may lead to inaccurate cost comparisons, Heinrich said.

She said the university's tuition figures include expenses, such as health insurance, that are built into the budget, something that does not apply to some other institutions.

"If you're going to compare numbers based on institution, we want it to be fair and based on reality," she said.

Before the act was passed, the Bush administration made efforts to implement accountability measures into the act. One provision, which was rejected, included a proposal to enforce standardized testing as a requirement for university accreditation, said John Douglass, a senior research fellow at UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, in an e-mail.

"(This drive included) an invasive effort by the Bush administration to essentially adopt elements of 'No Child Left Behind' to the higher education sector," Douglass said in the e-mail.

Though Congress's mechanisms to increase accountability may yield uneven results, the legislation signals a clear concern of the nation that could shape future policies, both critics and supporters said.

"The (act) says for the next administration that the citizens of this nation are committed to supporting higher education, but they also want outcomes," Scorza said.


Kelly Fitzpatrick covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected]

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