An advisory committee introduced by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will involve the federal government in higher education to an unprecedented level, according to some academics, and will be to the detriment of the system.

Spellings has appointed a commission of nineteen members, ranging from former University president James Duderstadt to Richard Stephens, a senior official at The Boeing Company, to address such issues as the affordability and accessibility of college.

Spellings announced the creation of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in a speech a little over two weeks ago and justified the committee’s creation by pointing to the amount of federal financial support given to colleges and universities and lack of transparency received in return.

The government is surprisingly unaware of what colleges actually do, Spelling said.  

Even though she added that the committee was not an excuse to introduce a bigger government role in higher education, education experts and academics continue to be apprehensive about the role of the commission.

There is a widespread fear that this unprecedented government involvement in higher education will ruin what makes the U.S. higher education system the best in the world: the fact that it is its decentralized and highly competitive, said Neal McCluskey, an education expert at the Cato Institute, a public policy think tank.

Because there is no national agenda set for universities by the government, McCluskey said, “Schools are innovating and putting out the best product in order to attract the best students.” If the government begins to set a systematic set of goals and requirements, the competition – and motivation to excel – disappears, McCluskey said.

“We should leave the education system as a free market, which it is very close to being. That is what has made America No.1, so why ruin that?” he added.

Duderstadt, who was the University’s president for eight years beginning in 1988, said that his inbox is full of messages from people concerned about the commission. Many people have e-mailed him saying that the commission threatens a system that they believe has propelled America as the world leader in higher education. But, he said that those concerns are unfounded.

“I had no reservations at all (about joining the commission) because I think it’s important for the nation to have a comprehensive agenda for the future of higher education,” he said.

Another concern that McCluskey shares with many other critics of the initiative is that the makeup of the commission does not represent taxpayers.

Most members of the panel, he said, have personal investments in the decisions that Spellings makes concerning the strategy that she sets forth.

“The big businesses and the higher education insiders all have vested interests in getting as much money out of the taxpayers as possible,” McCluskey said.

For example, he predicted that the executive from Boeing, who is on the committee, will push for a mandate requiring higher standards for engineering departments, so that his airplane company profits from a better quality of engineering students. And the higher education insiders like Duderstadt will encourage “anything that would bring more money to their universities,” he said.

The 19 panel members were approached about the initiative in the month before Spellings’s announcement, and said they still know relatively little about what lies in store for them.

The first meeting of the commission is scheduled for Oct. 17, and public hearings to be held around the country will attempt to draw students and families, policymakers, business leaders and the academic community into a dialogue on the future of higher education.

Spellings hopes the commission will determine what skills students need to succeed in the 21st century and whether colleges provide those skills.

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