The Report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education: Implications for Musicians

April 30, 2007


The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 authorizes the expenditure of billions of dollars in federal aid to education, includingperhaps most significantlystudent financial aid. Due for renewal every five to six years, the HEA has continued without reauthorization since 2003, although work is ongoing in the Senate and House of Representatives to complete the bills reauthorization. The current HEA extension expires on June 30, 2007.

As debate over reauthorization continued, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings saw an opportunity to advance her educational policies and influence the legislation. In September 2005 she appointed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and charged its members with examining the state of higher education in the U.S. and recommending reforms. A year later, in September 2006, the Commission released its sobering report, entitled A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (often informally referred to as the Spellings Report). Introductory comments to the report included the Commissioners belief that the U.S. is increasingly unable to compete globally because of a decline in the quality of our education, at the very time education is improving internationally. Although the reports focus is on undergraduate education, the authors suggest that our past educational attainments have led our nation to unwarranted complacency about the future of U.S. education at every level.

Many disagree with the report and not a few are suspicious of the motivations behind it. Nonetheless, it is compelling reading, and much of its evidence is hard to ignore. Secretary Spellings has no intention of ignoring the evidence. Compared with the glacial pace at which most universities enact change, she is moving at the speed of light to introduce what Judith Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, describes as nothing less than a radical expansion of federal authority over accreditors. Such a move would represent an enormous change in the U.S. system of accreditation, at present a largely self-regulatory system. At stake, Eaton writes, is the longstanding leadership of the academy in determining academic standards and judging academic quality. 1

Findings and Conclusions

The Commission reported findings that led to conclusions in five areas, explained in the reports Summary. If we doubt the seriousness of the Commissions concerns, a single, stunning reference will be illustrative. According to data on the web site for the National Center for Education Statistics, adult literacy rates for both prose literacy (i.e., the ability to understand narrative texts) and document literacy (i.e., the ability to understand practical information or instructions) fell dramatically in the period between 1992 and 2003. For college graduates, percentages fell 11 points in prose and 14 points in document literacy; for persons with some graduate study or a graduate degree, percentages were down 13 points in prose and 17 points in document literacy during the 11-year period. No academic program can remain unaffected by this trend.

Very briefly, the conclusions are the following:

  • Access: Too few students are going to college (or other postsecondary education) and too few are graduating; there are too many financial barriers.

  • Financial Aid: The system is too complicated, and information comes so late that it discourages college attendance and leaves many students with unmet financial needs.

  • Learning: The quality of student learning is inadequate and, in some cases, declining; essential lifelong learning is often rendered difficult to pursue.

  • Transparency and Accountability: Clear information for students and reliable data for policy makers are difficult to obtain.

  • Innovation: State and federal policy makers, postsecondary education itself, and even accreditation processes have impeded, or can impede, approaches to education that could make the U.S. more competitive in the global marketplace.


Whatever the Commissioners meant when they stated that accreditation can impede creativity and innovation that could address our educational woes, one thing is certain: Most U.S. postsecondary institutions cannot survive without accreditation. Legislation requires that institutions be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education in order to be qualified to distribute federal student financial aid. Without this financial support, few institutions could operate in their present form (or perhaps at all), and significantly fewer students could pursue postsecondary education.

The situation invites criticism from those who suspect that too close a relationship exists between the accrediting agencies and the institutions whose work they oversee. But the Department of Educations take on the impediment to progress posed by accreditation agencies is clear: If nothing else, they drag their feet, with efforts over the last several years to improve focus on student learning being, in the Department of Educations view, limited and inconsistent.2 (This charge will have an ironic ring to faculty who have participated in regional and specialized accreditation reviews.)

Whether the Commission and the Department of Education meant to include in their criticism specialized accreditation, such as that offered by the National Association of Schools of Music, is not clear in the report. In any event, specialized accreditation is not required for access to federally allocated financial support for education, although it is clearly important and functional for many other reasons which we, and many other disciplines, recognize and value.

Recommendations from the Commission and The Secretarys Action Plan

The Commission ended its September 2006 report with six multi-faceted recommendations that include developing a national strategy for lifelong learning for all citizens; improving student preparation and persistence; addressing institutional cost management, benchmarking, productivity, and efficiency; and creating a robust culture of accountability and transparency throughout higher education. Here, a recommendation is that accreditation agencies make performance outcomes a priority for both student learning and institutional measures such as completion rates. The report concludes with the urgent message that we must ensure that universities can produce graduates capable of global leadership in knowledge-intensive professions, especially science, engineering, and medicine.

At the same time the Commission released its report, Secretary Spellings announced her Action Plan for Higher Education: Improving Accessibility, Affordability, and Accountability. The plan included five proposals. Few would argue with four of them: Aligning K-12 and higher education expectations; increasing need-based aid for access and success; serving adults and other non-traditional students; and enhancing affordability, decreasing costs, and promoting productivity.

The Rub

The fifth proposal in Secretary Spellings action plan was to use accreditation to support and emphasize student learning outcomes. In September, the Secretary proposed to convene members of the accreditation community to recommend changes to the standards for recognition that will place a greater emphasis on results. On November 29, 2006, she held the proposed accreditation forum, noting that the goal of the forum was towork together for a more robust, more outcomefocused, results-centered system. And in early May 2007, the Department of Educations web site on Negotiated Rulemaking for Higher Education added a link to proposed language for accreditation which speaks directly of external indicators and externally-set performance measures or criteria.

And theres the rub. While many of us might agree that accreditation processes can be improved, few academics would agree that imposing externally-set performance measures is the way to do it. Many see this language as a not-very-graceful grab for federal control over higher education and foresee the construction of a mastery learning style check-list, containing bits of information that students must be able to produce for a test.

Samuel H. Hope, Executive Director of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), has written at great length about the misguided nature of such an approach. And hes right. We know that exit exams that are aligned with the reproduction of bits of informationrather than with the demonstration of acquired, internalized knowledge directly connected to the curriculum in question, and with the capacity to apply, analyze, and synthesize that knowledge with knowledge gained across the college learning experienceare a great waste of time. They produce scores, but they demonstrate little about the extent to which students can apply what they have learned.

A number of issues come to the fore in anticipating what the Commission and the Secretary may have in mind. The most important of these issues, perhaps, is a clear understanding of appropriate assessment. If we are confused about program assessment, and if we forget about authentic assessmentor if we suspect that the federal government may be confused or forgetful in these matterswe do, indeed, have reason to worry. For the moment I am optimistic that specialized accreditation will continue to focus on achievement and improvement consistent with the nature of the discipline or profession involved. As Sam Hope writes in his tenth briefing letter, No matter how advanced an institution or program, there is usually a strong desire to improve, and he points to the capacity for specialized accreditation reviews to play an analytic and catalytic role in helping each institution improve from its current base.

The Good News

Regardless of how we may feel about the approach of the Commission, the Secretary of Education, or the Congress in addressing Americas educational needs, we need to bear in mind that the Commission has raised issues that are national in scope. The report is a reflection of growing national concern about evidence that suggests a decreasing ability to compete globally. Bringing these issues to the attention of the education community is, in my view, a good thingnot pleasant, certainly, but prudent.

Our field of music excels at authentic assessment,3 and is a model for the higher education community. There is never a week, rarely a day, when the music field does not share the fruits of its work with the general public. Our educational endeavors are constantly on display for public assessment on and off our campuses. By extension, our graduates are among the main purveyors and transmitters of cultural life in the United States. There is no greater assessment of outcomes than this. What our field must do is articulate this more clearly both to educational agencies and the public itself.

Many years ago, I read an article in which the authornot an arts graduate himselfpointed to the arts as the perfect vehicle for learning the teamwork, flexibility, motivation, and creativity needed in the workplaceany workplace. These qualities are now the very ones for which the Commission on the Future of Higher Education calls. Music has much to offer the education of every person, and if we dont make this point, who will?

The College Music Society has been in the forefront over the past five years of considering what you can do with a degree in music. This question continues to occupy the collective mind of the Society and informs continually the questions related to improving our programs. Again, it is our responsibility to articulate ideas clearly and forcefully on behalf of our field.

Prophetically addressing the issue of sharing our expectations with the public, the Association of American Colleges and Universities warned in 2004, In the current climate it is not enough for an institution to assess its students in ways that are grounded in the curriculum; colleges and universities also must provide useful knowledge to the public about goals, standards, accountability practices, and the quality of student learning.4

What Can You Do?

The concerns raised in the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education deserve to be addressed thoughtfully and with a view to avoiding the unintended consequences that inevitably accompany knee-jerk reactions. Even if accreditation or HEA reauthorization were not at issue, it behooves us to be prepared to speak to those concerns that are pertinent to our field. In my view, we are wise to consider the question, What are we going to do to improve higher education in the United States?

  • The first step is to become informed concerning the issues raised in A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. Good summer reading includes the two reports noted above, as well as the briefing papers released by NASM.

  • Stay informed. Watch for future announcements from the Department of Education concerning the Secretarys action plan. Negotiated rule making on accreditation concludes June 1 and will be followed by a 30-day public comment period. Watch for the final version of the Secretarys proposed rules and stay in touch with the legislative work as it continues. There is already serious concern and outright opposition to many of the U.S. Department of Educations proposals from higher education, accreditation agencies, and others. Just because something is proposed does not mean it is accomplished fact.

  • Be aware of the efforts of other professional societies to raise the level of education in the United States. College Learning for the New Global Century, the report of the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and Americas Promise, is a brief, thoughtful document with ideas that resonate with education in music. A 2007 publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), this is also good summer reading.

  • Become familiar with the work of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC)-whose member institutions are home to many departments of music-as they work to make accurate higher education data available across the country.

  • Bear in mind what AACU, AASCU, and other organizations committed to education in the U.S. constantly remind us: that, in addition to acquiring field-specific knowledge and experience, the most basic goals of an undergraduate education remain the ability to think, write, and speak clearly; to reason critically; to solve problems; to work collaboratively; to develop the judgment, analytic capacity, and independence of thought to support continued, self-driven, lifelong learning and engaged citizenship. These goals are as valid for a major in music as for any other field, and they must remain secure, no matter how much we change the "package."

  • Examine your programs. How can you and your colleagues make them better? Our programs must not only be better, but they must be seen as being better. We must be our own best advocates.

  • Get in the conversation. Discuss these issues with your colleagues on the faculty and in the administration and with students; consider together how they will affect your music program and institution. The American Council on Education and other higher education organizations will be working with officials on your campus to develop national responses.

  • Finally, let your representatives in the U.S. government know of your concerns. Fax and email are still effective ways to express concerns to government representatives. Express your own views, but be well studied and coordinated with larger efforts as much as possible.

The future of our field promises to be affected in significant, and probably unanticipated, ways by the present discussion. Get informed, get involved, and stay involved.


1 Judith Eaton is quoted in a May 16, 2007, message from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Eaton's full comments on the proposed changes will appear in the Spring 2007 issue of AACU's journal, Liberal Education.

2 News release from the Department of Education, "Secretary Spellings convenes accreditation forum in Washington, D.C., with key stakeholders," dated November 29, 2007.

3 "Authentic assessment," briefly described, requires that students use all relevant knowledge and skills to move significantly beyond mere recall and perform a "real-world" task, often-as is the case with music-within the view of the "real world."

4 Our Students' Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of our Mission, a statement from the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2004 publication of AACU, p. 9.

The full texts of all of the documents discussed here are available online:

A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education
(U.S. Department of Education, 2006)

Action Plan for Higher Education: Improving Accessibility, Affordability, and Accountability
(U.S. Department of Education, 2006)

College Learning for the New Global Century
(LEAP Project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007)

NASM Briefing Papers

National Assessment of Adult Literacy comparison of 1992 and 2003 literacy rates
(on the National Center for Education Statistics site)

Our Students' Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission
(Statement from the Board of Directory of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2004)

U.S. Department of Education 2006-07 Negotiated Rulemaking Main Page
(contains proposed language)

2176 Last modified on May 7, 2013
Login to post comments