U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., today told a gathering at the Council of Higher Education Accreditation’s annual meeting that a communication gap exists between congressional lawmakers and the higher education community that threatens the economic security of the nation.
“It is up to the higher education community to eliminate this gap,” Alexander said before more than 300 people gathered at the conference here in the nation’s capital. “We’re talking about whether our system of higher education will continue to be our secret weapon providing the brainpower edge that prevents our jobs from going to India and China and other countries in the world so we can keep our high standard of living and keep America strong.”
Alexander – a former U.S. Secretary of Education and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee – said education officials must stress to lawmakers that excellence in higher education primarily comes from institutional autonomy.
“Congress simply doesn’t understand the importance of autonomy, excellence and choice, and the higher education community hasn’t bothered to explain it in plain English to members who need to hear it and understand it,” Alexander said. “The genius of our system is it is a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous institutions.”
He urged education officials to overcome this disconnect between Washington and the higher education system by explaining their own accountability efforts to lawmakers before those lawmakers overburden the system with their own rules and regulations. Alexander said this could best be done by education officials in each lawmakers’ home district.
In addition to stressing the importance of autonomy, Alexander said education officials should:
Inform lawmakers how state funding for higher education is not keeping pace with the costs of higher education
Detail steps institutions are taking to ensure that money is being spent wisely
Alexander also praised higher education organizations for joining together to respond to the question of accountability through the document “New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability.”
The document is a statement of key principles and commitment to action that calls on each college and university to develop ambitious, specific and clearly stated goals for student learning.
“These principles are an important step in improving the public dialogue about accountability in higher education, and I’m pleased that the higher education community is responding to the challenge,” Alexander said.
Alexander has long warned of overregulation of higher education. In 2005, he introduced the Higher Education Simplification and Deregulation Act. Last year, Alexander supported Senate approval of the Higher Education Amendments of 2007, which would reauthorize the Higher Education Act, but noted lingering concerns about overregulation.