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Midwestern Higher Education Policy Summit

Oak Brook, Illinois

Kathleen Nelson, president of Lake Superior College in Minnesota, speaks during a seminar at the Midwestern summit.
STATE LEGISLATORS and higher education officials who attended the first Midwestern Higher Education Policy Summit here in early June were urged to make college more affordable for low-income students, but the response was not overwhelming.

"Most economists who study this subject (college costs and affordability) argue that access for low-income students remains the central problem," David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, wrote in a paper prepared for the summit.

At the meeting itself, Breneman said, "the dollars we put into higher education will have the greatest impact on lower-income families," but added that most recent legislation -- President Clinton's tuition tax credits; pre-paid tuition plans; and state tuition freezes -- largely have benefited the middle class.

In one of the small-group discussions that followed Breneman's presentation, David B. Laird, president of the Minnesota Private College Council, said future enrollment growth in many states will depend on providing access for students from the lowest 25 to 30 percent of incomes.

"We're leaving those folks behind in order to accommodate those who whine the most," Laird said. "That's going to cost us."

But Ohio State Senator Richard H. Finan disagreed. "It's the middle class that's struggling," Finan said. "Those are the people we have to worry about."

Finan's point of view seemed to predominate, not only in this "break-out" session but throughout the three-day meeting. The conferees considered many affordability questions, such as how higher education might be made more cost effective and what can be done about rapidly increasing student debt, but little was said about providing access for low-income students.

On the last day, a proposal to "focus financial aid on the basis of need" was tacked on to the list of 22 recommendations approved by the conference, after a plea from E.F. Infante, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University and one of the conference speakers.

Illinois Governor Jim Edgarurged conferees to seek ways to make colleges and universities more cost effective.
Among other recommendations approved by the group were proposals to regionalize high-cost programs, to make it easier for students to transfer credits from two-year to four-year institutions and to hold "fair share" meetings in each state, to discuss how much of the cost of higher education should be borne by students and their families and how much by the state.

Thirty-nine state legislators and twice as many higher education officials, from 12 midwestern states, attended the summit, which was held at "Hamburger University," the McDonald's Corporation training center just west of Chicago.

Sponsors were the Midwestern Higher Education Commission, the Council of State Governments Midwest, the Midwestern Legislative Conference, Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Michigan, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

"The real benefits" of the summit came not from the resolutions that were passed but from "the informal conversations that took place between legislators and higher education officials," said William Sederburg, president of Ferris State. "You don't get those opportunities very often in the normal course of things."

But Minnesota's David Laird was disappointed at the small amount of attention that was paid to private higher education. "This was mainly for the benefit of the public institutions," Laird said, "and they don't really have much interest in the role private colleges and universities might play."

-- William Trombley

Photos by Todd Buchanan, Black Star, For CrossTalk

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