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An Open Letter to the Members of Congress Regarding the Higher Education Act:

Soon, you will be asked to vote on the resolution to reenact the Higher Education Act (HEA). This legislation, administered by the Department of Education, authorizes the federal government’s major student aid programs, as well as other significant initiatives.

During the reauthorization process, you may be asked to weigh a number of issues that Members of Congress might debate when considering the reenactment of HEA, among them:

  • HEA’s effectiveness in increasing access to postsecondary education;
  • college costs and prices;
  • standards and accountability; and
  • teacher quantity and quality.

We, in the higher education community, believe that the HEA is one of the most important pieces of federal legislation for higher education. And while we believe that the reauthorization of the Act should be a foregone conclusion, we recognize that the issues you consider, on your way to voting on HEA, may appear as complex as the postsecondary education enterprise itself.

In this regard, in the fall of 2003 members of the Faculty Resource Network—a partnership of forty-one institutions nationwide, including many of America’s historically black colleges—met at New York University to outline specific points regarding assessment and accountability in higher education, points that we hope you will address as you weigh your vote on HEA.

The Faculty Resource Network is an award-winning faculty development initiative whose mission is to improve the quality of teaching and learning at its member and affiliate institutions by providing opportunities for faculty development and cross-institutional collaboration. Our work has been supported by grants from such federal agencies such as the NIH, the NEH, the NSF, the NEA, as well as such foundations as the Mellon, Ford, Hearst, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Robert Wood Johnson, and Hewlett.

In all, the Faculty Resource Network and its sister partnership, The Leadership Alliance, represent over 25,000 teachers and over 15,000 administrators, who are your constituents across the country. And at our national symposium last fall we identified a number of considerations regarding assessment and accountability in higher education. We urge you to keep these in mind as you consider the reauthorization of HEA:

  • Assessment is centrally an argument about quality in education—and how the notion of quality is defined is neither clear nor univocal.
  • The difficulty is in measuring the qualitative, value-added aspects of education.
  • Current benchmarks fail to address the ways in which education “as a product” is changing.
  • Benchmark-based assessment of institutions may well miss addressing the special challenges of low-income students.
  • Any discussion about benchmarks linked to increases in tuition must address the reasons why such increases have occurred, notably the expanded costs of healthcare, technology, and student services.
  • One-size-fits-all formulas are inevitably not going to address the specific problems facing institutions.
  • Different types of institutions cannot be held to the same standards.
  • New legislation that creates unfunded mandates sets up conditions for the failure of any carefully conceived assessment initiative.
  • Communication must address the repercussions of loss of funding and how institutions and individuals would be affected.

We think the case for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is clear and strong. Murky methods of assessment or ill-conceived standards of accountability run the danger of encumbering America’s institutions of postsecondary education with unreasonable burdens when they should be empowering successive generations of students. Access to higher education is the genius of American democracy. Your vote to reauthorize the HEA ensures the continuity of that democracy.