Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

'A crazy idea that the U.S. can educate everyone'

COMMENTARY | March 30, 2006

A Boston hearing by a Federal commission on higher education probably cost the equivalent of two Pell grants. Wick Sloane questions whether it was worth it.

This essay first appeared in Insidehighered.com, on March 21, 2006.

By Wick Sloane

BOSTONTwo uniformed doormen opened the doors of the five-star Copley Plaza Hotel for me today. I was, after all, on my way into the gold leaf, mirrored Versailles lobby, as Testimony #38, at a public hearing by the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. So my tag said.

Where better to look down the money hole of U.S. higher education than Copley Square? Named after an aristocratic 18th-century painter, the square is a trapezoid. Why didn’t Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, use this as an example in her testimony about the need for math education?

Tobacco chiefs declaring no relation between cancer and smoking could learn from college presidents and cost. In the morning, speaking by invitation only, were presidents and chancellors. The foxes on henhouse security. No one gagged when Larry Bacow, president of Tufts University, really said, “Our costs are completely beyond our control.” No one even laughed.

Of the presidents, only Mary Fifield of Bunker Hill Community College actually brought suggestions or mentioned the odds against low-income students graduating from college or the scandal of merit scholarships for the rich at the expense of Pell Grants to the poor.

Bacow and Hockfield were long gone for the only voice raised in outrage all day. Jason Pramas, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, testified, “Needless to say, we’re skeptical about the commission. It seems stacked with corporate representatives, conservative think tanks, Bush appointees,” he said. “And holding a bare handful of meetings and small public hearings like this one seems a rather poor way of taking the pulse of American higher education.”

At the hotel front desk, I asked Tenneal Banks if she planned to testify. “No, I’m working.” Every day, she leaves Providence, R.I., at 5 AM to work in Boston at the hotel. She’s back for night school at Johnson and Wales University every evening. A full course load. What would she say to the commission? Too hard to raise the money to pay for her education.

Sean Comeau, a staffer on the concierge floor, also wasn’t testifying. He had years of loans to pay off. He thought the commission should give more status to community colleges. “No one at my high school would admit that’s where they were going. But it’s the only way in for lots of people.”

Did the Copley Plaza have a tuition reimbursement plan, I asked another, who just laughed. “You can’t have my name or I’ll get into trouble,” she said.

I had signed up for the hearing on the Web a couple weeks ago. E-mail last week brought confirmation of my three minutes to testify.

We encourage you to address the following issues and questions:

  • How accessible is higher education today? Is this changing?
  • Do students have access to the institutions best suited to their needs and abilities?
  • What is the real cost of educating college students?

And so on. With Pell Grants frozen (and Bush proposing yet another year’s freeze), with commercial banks charging usurious interest rates for student loans, with cuts in student aid, why not the Copley Plaza? At $279 plus tax per night, the best rate according to the hotel’s Web site, I figure the hearing cost at least two Pell Grants. Henry Hardenbergh, architect of the Copley Plaza, also designed the Plaza in New York. As Terry Perlin, my History 101 professor years ago at Williams College, used to say, “I have nothing against fiction. But who needs it? The truth is unbelievable.” The February commission meeting was at a seaside resort in San Diego.

I have this crazy idea that the U.S. can afford to educate everyone to a level of literacy and math sufficient to have choices in their own lives. I’ve done hard time as the CFO of a state university system. I packed my day-job colleagues at work off to India this week and took a day off to testify. In a hotel basement conference room. Ninety-nine percent white audience. Few younger than 40. Most of us older.

Here’s the set piece. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. The presidents go on with the usual prattle about how much more college graduates earned. Never mind that the earnings come long after student loans are due. And the presidents are long gone by the afternoon public testimony, where even students at the supposedly less expensive state schools described their staggering debt load. Where were the students from Harvard or MIT? Or my schools, Williams and Yale?

Nine presidents had the morning to themselves, with no time limits. We, the people, had three minutes each and a timer with lights and a buzzer. Yellow light for 30 seconds remaining. Red light and the buzzer meant stop talking. Nearly 50 speakers, students, trade groups, a brave young woman with Down syndrome whose federal aid had been cut, crammed into the same time as the nine presidents.

Joshua Chaisson, from the University of Southern Maine, one of the only students, stood beside me at the back of the room in the morning.

“I’m the only person from all of the state of Maine. That pisses me off,” he said. “None of the presidents or chancellors. The students are more active than the people paid $250,000 to run the system.” Chaisson is the first generation in his family to go to college. A junior economics major, he’d skipped three classes to be there.

On my way out — I’d hit the red light and the buzzer — I stopped for commissioner David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. I gave him a gentle pat on the back. He was talking to a reporter.

“Go for it. We’re expecting great things from you,” I said. He rolled his eyes and said, “Right.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.