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Higher Ed Leaders to Spellings: How Do We Make It Work?

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings unveiled her plan yesterday for making higher education more affordable and accountable to quality standards, but the plan raises worries about funding and implementation.
University Business, Sep 2006

In a speech that was blunt in its criticism of U.S. higher education-but lacking in solutions-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings outlined the final report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, Spellings addressed the "buzz" that has resulted regarding a higher ed system that she said is "sometimes self-satisfied and unduly expensive."

She added that students now graduate saddled with so much debt that buying a home or starting a family is out of the question.

She delivered the commission's report, "A Test of Leadership," while repeatedly stressing that the financial aid system should be overhauled so that more students and parents can decipher the detailed applications. She also called colleges and universities to task for rising tuitions.

"In the past five years alone, tuition at four-year colleges has skyrocketed 40 percent," she said. "I want to know why and I know other parents do too," she added, making reference to her daughter, who is a college sophomore.

The recurring phrase throughout the speech was "accessibility, affordability, and accountability."

Regarding access to higher ed, Spellings stated that high schools are not doing the job of making enough students college-ready. "One million [high school] students drop out every year," she noted. "Those who do graduate are often unprepared for college." The answer has been remedial education at the college level for incoming freshmen. As a result, students and taxpayers "pay the bill twice" for high-school-level education.

On the point of affordability Spellings painted a picture of an unnecessarily complex financial aid system that is a maze of 60 websites, dozens of toll-free numbers, and 17 government-based programs. The student aid form is longer than the federal tax form, she claimed, holding up both side-by-side. Spellings and the commission recommend scrapping the current system and starting over with one that is more user-friendly. That, though, is going to be a formidable task since much of what she and the commission are proposing will have to be approved by Congress.

In the meantime, she promised that her department will do what it can by cutting the waiting time in half for those who have applied for government aid. Students and their families will receive estimated financial aid eligibility information earlier in the spring semester of the high school senior year. This will help with financial planning for college, she noted.

She did mention the Pell Grant, currently set at $4,500 per eligible college student, but did not go into the current administration's failure to raise Pell significantly to help cover higher education costs, a point that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted before Spellings delivered her speech.

She cautioned the education community about the tendency to see more government money as the answer to the problem. "Over the years we have invested tens of billions of dollars and have hoped for the best," she chided. She called upon states and institutions to do their part in keeping costs in line.

In the effort to make higher education institutions more "accountable" for academic quality, she proposed a national database that would track student learning and performance. The higher education database would be similar to the one now in place for K-12, allowing students and parents to compare academic performance and graduation rates. The database would protect students' privacy, she stressed, but would yield comparable statistics.

Capturing this data and creating an accountability database is going to cost colleges and universities money, but Spellings did not elaborate as to how much. She did promise that the government would provide matching funds to colleges, universities, and states that publicly report student-learning outcomes.

She added that 40 states currently have such databases to track student performance. "But they are 40 islands unto themselves." A state-by-state system doesn't work at the higher education level, given that the choices on where to study are often between in-state and out-of-state institutions, public versus private, or four-year versus two-year, she said.

Such transparency in higher education will better serve those shopping for colleges. "You wouldn't buy a house without an inspection," she quipped.

"Colleges and universities are the keepers of the flame on intellectual discourse," she told the crowd. "So, let's have some discourse. Let's have some debate."

She is likely to get what she is calling for, as higher education experts review the 62-page report and its proposed fixes. Anticipating some negative reaction, Spellings promised to convene a summit this spring to bring the many sectors of higher education together to review possibilities.

She promised, too, that the U.S. government is not looking to create a "national higher education" system. "One of the greatest assets of our system is its diversity, something we must protect and preserve. Our aim is to make sure that higher education is a reality for every American."

The U.S. Department of Education made a live webcast available, while C-Span broadcast the speech. The archived webcast is available at

The archive includes the question and answer session that followed Spellings' approximately 25-minute presentation. Many missives from the press focused on K-12 education and questioned Spellings on the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the recent reports of mismanagement in the Reading First program. The program has been roundly criticized within the past week for waste and for favoring certain curriculum vendors over others.

Spellings insisted that NCLB is "going strong" and the Reading First program is successful, claiming that the youngest K-12 public school students have made more gains in reading and math proficiency during the past five years than the prior 28 years combined.

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