Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) Future of Higher Education

Posted on September 26, 2006

Mr. President, today the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, made an important speech at the National Press Club. In her remarks, she discussed the report from her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. This commission was chaired by Charles Miller, who was the former chairman of the board of regents of the University of Texas system and a leader in education reform at all levels. I am very impressed with Secretary Spellings. I know her job. I once had it. I do not think we have had a more effective Secretary of Education. I am very impressed with Mr. Miller. I know about his work in Texas as part of a group of business leaders over the last 20 years who have led the country in terms of helping to set accountability standards in elementary and secondary education. Mr. President, I encourage my colleagues to read Secretary Spellings' speech from today. Secretary Spellings is the first U.S. Secretary of Education to assume the role of lead adviser to coordinate all of higher education. I am glad she is doing that because almost every Department of the Federal Government has something to do with higher education. Currently, no one is the lead person for that. It ought to be the Secretary of Education. She stepped up to do it. I applaud her, and I applaud President Bush for asking her to do that. The Secretary's recommendations in her speech today are sensible and respect the prerogative of Congress to make major changes in higher education policy. In plain English, she laid out some very good recommendations, but she recognized that is one branch of Government, we are the Article I branch of Government, and if there are major changes in policy, we will make them here, and then it is their job to implement it. But among the strong recommendations in her report are the following: Simplify the financial aid system. We are already doing that, having worked with the Secretary on a commission, and it is included in the higher education bill that has not passed. That is a very good recommendation. Another recommendation is expanding more access to more students. The initial cost estimates of her commission's report suggest its recommendations might cost $9 billion or $10 billion more in terms of Pell grants. That is a lot of money, but it is an important goal. Another recommendation is increased competitiveness. The Secretary's commission spent quite a bit of time urging the Congress and the country to adopt the recommendations of the Augustine commission, to adopt the recommendations of the Council on Competitiveness, and to adopt the President's recommendations on competitiveness. That was a help in getting us come to the point in this body where tonight Senator Frist and Senator Reid will introduce the National Competitiveness Investment Act. The Secretary's committee recommended less regulation for higher education, which is something I want to talk a little bit more about in a moment. I thoroughly agree with that. And, of course, another recommendation is to find ways to reduce costs, which every family who has a student headed toward higher education thinks about. In our own family, where we have two new grandchildren who are less than 1 year of age, the parents--our children--are already thinking about it: How in the world are we going to pay for college out of our budgets in 18 years? That is at the top of almost everyone's concern. I want to wave one bright, yellow flag, a cautionary flag, at one troubling aspect of the report of the Secretary's commission. That is best captured by the following sentence on page 13 of the commission's report, and I quote: ``Our complex, decentralized post-secondary education system has no comprehensive strategy, particularly for undergraduate programs, to provide either adequate internal accountability systems or effective public information.'' ``Our complex, decentralized post-secondary education system has no comprehensive strategy.......'' The commission apparently believes that is a weakness. I believe that is a strength. I believe that is the greatest strength of our higher education system. The key to the quality of the American higher education system is that it is not one system, but that it is a marketplace of over 6,000 autonomous systems, independent systems. These autonomous or independent institutions--such as the University of Tennessee, or Fisk University, or the Nashville Auto Diesel College, or Yeshiva University--these institutions are regulated primarily by competition--competition for students, for faculty, and for research dollars--and by consumer choice, which is fueled by generous Federal dollars that follow more than one-half of American college students to the institutions of their choice. There is, in addition, a system of independent accreditation to help regulate these independent and autonomous institutions. To be sure, there is still plenty of the traditional kind of command-and-control Government regulation. That is very hard to get away from. Every State has a regulatory body, such as the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. And each of the 6,000 institutions I described that accepts students with Federal grants or loans must wade through over 7,000 Federal regulations and notices. Those regulations exist today. The president of Stanford University has said that 7 cents of every tuition dollar is spent on compliance with Government regulations. The last thing American higher education needs is a barrage of new Federal regulations requiring sending new data to Washington so someone here can try to figure out how to improve the Harvard Classics Department or the Nashville Auto Diesel College, both of whose students are eligible for Federal grants and loans. I believe the overregulation of higher education is the greatest deterrent to maintaining the quality of American higher education, and that autonomy, competition, and choice are the greatest incentives to excellence. I would, therefore, wish to lead the bandwagon or be on the bandwagon or push the bandwagon for more deregulation and to increase the autonomy of institutions of higher education and to preserve competition for research dollars and to give students the broadest array of education choices possible. Today in America we are doing that much better than any other country in the world. It is instructive that China and several European countries are deregulating their overly bureaucratized colleges and universities to try to catch up with the quality of ours. Of course, better information informs choices. And, of course, easier transfer policies between or among institutions could increase opportunities. Much is to be gained from research that will help institutions measure what value their classes add to students. But I do not want rules about transfer policies to diminish institutional autonomy. I do not want to see rules from Washington substitute for choice and competition as the principal regulators of the quality of our colleges and universities. I do not want to see even more tuition dollars go to pay for complying with costly Government regulations instead of to improving research and teaching in the classroom. By design or luck, the United States has created a magnificent marketplace environment that has resulted in, by far, the best higher education system in the world with remarkable access for students of all incomes. Our goal should be to improve that system, not to replace it with some command-and-control structure. Mr. President, I spoke before the Secretary's Commission on December 9 of 2005, and I hope that those remarks were useful to the Commission. Mr. President, I want to comment that it is important to keep all of this discussion in some perspective. For example, there is a great concern about the rising cost of tuition. Secretary Spellings, in her remarks, says she wants to know why. Well, I know why it has gone up. It has gone up because State funding for higher education has been flat. It has actually gone down in many cases. As State funding of colleges and universities in Minnesota or Tennessee or South Dakota has gone down, colleges and universities have had to raise their tuition to have enough funds to maintain quality. Now, of course, there are plenty of ways to reduce costs, and we need to push that and encourage that. And the Secretary has many suggestions for that. She is right about that. But let's not overlook the fact that Federal spending for higher education has gone way up in the last several years, but State spending has been flat. If anyone wants to know why your tuition bills are higher, it is because your Governors and your legislatures have not been paying their fair share of what it takes to have a quality system of higher education in America. I talked about that in my testimony to the Commission, and I hope they listened to that. I hope the Administration and my colleagues understand that as well. For example, during the 5-year period from 2000 to 2004, State spending for Medicaid, which is where the Governors have to put most of their extra money, was up 36 percent; State spending for higher education was up barely 7 percent. As a result, tuition went up 38 percent. There is another way I think about it. When I left the Governor's office nearly 20 years ago in Tennessee, Tennessee was spending 51 cents of every State tax dollar on education and 16 cents on health care--mainly Medicaid. Today, instead of 51 cents on education, it is 40 cents on education. And instead of 16 cents on health care, it is 26 cents on health care. So if we do not get control of Medicaid spending here in this Chamber, and in the other Chamber, one of the unintended consequences will be that we will drive down the quality of higher education all across America because it will not have appropriate State funding and we will not create the new jobs that will help us compete with China and India. On the question of cost, two other things: One is, I ask unanimous consent, Mr. President, to have printed in the RECORD a short column by the president of the University of Maryland, William E. Kirwan, who discusses State funding that I have just talked about, and talks about what some colleges and universities are doing to reduce costs to help control the rise of tuition. Mr. ALEXANDER. Sometimes we talk so much about the high cost of higher education where families hear that and think no one can go to college. I was president of the University of Tennessee. Tuition has gone up there for the reasons I just talked about. But today tuition at the University of Tennessee, which is one of the leading research institutions in this country--the manager of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory--is $5,300 a year. It is $5,300 a year for tuition at the University of Tennessee. That is more than a lot of people have, but that is a very good bargain in today's marketplace. Volunteer State Community College, a public 2-year college--we encourage many people to go to community colleges, and then to our research universities--the tuition there is $2,383 a year. At Tennessee State University, in Nashville--an excellent institution--it is $4,300. It is the same story in many other States. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for North Carolina students--one of the best universities in the world--it is $4,500 a year. At the University of Phoenix--a different kind of university, but I had a distinguished scientist from the University of Texas tell me he looked at colleges of education all over America, and he thought the college of education at the University of Phoenix was as good as any to get your teacher's degrees--the comparable cost there for a year's tuition is about $6,669. They do things a little differently, but they provide an education and a service that many people are asking for, and I think that reflects the strength of our autonomous system of higher education. Now, if you want to go to Harvard, it is a lot more. If you want to go to Vanderbilt, it is a lot more. But the rest of that story is, if you show up at Harvard, or if you are admitted to Vanderbilt, and you do not have the money, they are going to do their best to help you pay for that. So I would hope as we talk about the cost of higher education that we recognize that many of the State institutions are reasonably priced, that the failure of State funding over the last several years is the principal culprit in the rising increase for public schools, and that we do not get carried away up here in Washington by thinking if we pass some more regulations here, somehow we are going to solve the problem, and we are going to make our higher education system better. My main point is this: Our greatest threat to quality higher education is overregulation. And our greatest incentive for it is deregulation, choice, and competition. Those are the incentives I would like to preserve. ### Security Through Education (By William E. Kirwan) [From the Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2006] A national security crisis is brewing, and if our country doesn't take immediate action, it could be devastating for the future of the United States. Consider these facts: Worldwide, the United States ranks seventh in high-school completion rates and ninth in the percentage of high-school graduates who enroll in college. Of every 100 current eighth-graders in America, just 18 will receive a college degree during the next 10 years. Based on current participation and completion rates, the education pipeline reveals alarming holes. The ``prescription'' for what ails education in this country enjoys widespread consensus: Improve the performance of our primary and secondary school students and provide access to affordable, high-quality higher education to more people. But how the country goes about filling this prescription is a matter of significant debate. Clearly, a ``fix'' to the problem requires the combined and coordinated efforts of various sectors. Central to the effort, however, must be higher education. Higher education, after all, prepares the teachers for the schools and sets the standards for the degrees. What should higher education do to help plug the holes in the education pipeline and enable our nation to address its most pressing long-term national security issue: the development of a robust and superbly educated workforce? First, higher education must become more engaged in improving primary and secondary school performance. Colleges and universities need to encourage more students to pursue teaching careers and, in partnership with local school districts, better prepare prospective teachers with the content knowledge and pedagogy skills to succeed. Universities must work more effectively with the K-12 sector to ensure that student assessment in high school is closely aligned with college entrance requirements, and that the transition from high school to college is as seamless as advancement from 11th to 12th grade. The best way to achieve such transformational changes is through so-called statewide K-16 councils, which bring educational leaders from all levels--superintendents, principals, university presidents, deans--together with business and community leaders on a regular basis to develop reform agendas. Such an approach is working in Maryland and a few other states. As a second means of plugging the holes, state governments and higher education need to rethink the way they distribute financial aid. During the past two decades there has been a huge shift in the allocation of university-based aid, away from students with demonstrated financial need and toward high-ability students--often from upper-middle-class families--whom universities seek in order to improve their SAT profiles and ``vanity'' rankings. Too many low-income students are either discouraged from attending college or must work such long hours that their progress toward a degree is unreasonably delayed or, worse, terminated. Fortunately, we have seen several ``enlightened'' universities--including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, College Park--introduce programs to ensure that students from families at the lower end of the economic ladder can graduate debt-free. At the University System of Maryland, we recently adopted a policy requiring that students from families with the lowest levels of income graduate with the lowest debt. Planned expenditures on institutional need-based aid by USM institutions have increased more than 30 percent in the past year. Finally, higher education--especially public higher education--must learn to operate with a more cost-conscious budget model. Most others sectors have experienced significant productivity gains through rigorous attention to cost containment. Higher education can no longer afford to ignore this strategy. Investment of state funds in higher education on a per-student basis is at a 25-year low. It has fallen from about $7,100 in 2001 to just over $5,800 in 2005. As state investment on a per-student basis has declined, the tuition burden on students and their families has increased. In more than a quarter of our states, tuition revenue is now greater than the state's investment in its public colleges and universities. In the coming decades, areas such as health care, energy, and social services for an aging population will require an ever greater proportion of available tax dollars, accelerating the decline in public investment in higher education. With that decline and without serious attention to cost containment, colleges and universities will face two highly undesirable alternatives: Accept more students at generally affordable tuition levels and see quality erode or protect quality by driving up tuition to levels that will be prohibitive for low-income students. With the leadership of its Board of Regents, the University System of Maryland has incorporated cost containment as a formal part of its budget development process. These efforts have reduced the ``bottom line'' by more than $40 million for the system's 13 institutions during the past two years. –end-