Maybe it was because she was facing a room full of college presidents and higher education association types. Maybe Margaret Spellings bought into the adage that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Or maybe, just maybe, college leaders were prepared for the worst and got something better.
Whatever the case, the education secretary's eagerly awaited speech Tuesday laying out her agenda for carrying out the work of the federal commission she appointed last year -- arguably the most significant higher education speech thus far in the Bush administration -- was warmly received by many if not most college leaders, who said they were struck by its conciliatory tone and a plan that put cooperation ahead of confrontation. (An article focused on the content of the speech appeared on Inside Higher Ed yesterday.)
"I saw it as a reaching out, and I'm confident the higher education community will reach out" in return, said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, who was the only member of Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education not to sign its final report. Ward said Tuesday that he had made that decision partly because its work and its final report had left him concerned that when Spellings and other policy makers got their hands on it, they would "rush to some implementation" of ideas that were not ready for prime time and it would become a question of "who would do what to whom."
But the education secretary's speech, which offered a relatively short list of "action items" and, Ward noted, made repeated references to "dialogue" and "discourse," set out on a very different path, he said, and is likely to make college leaders much less fearful of having unpopular dictates imposed on them. "I feel I can bring a lot more people into the tent than I did after the commission finished its report," Ward said.
Ward was quick to add that he did not interpret the secretary's conciliatory stance to mean that colleges could afford to rest on their laurels and ignore the thesis -- advanced by the commission and endorsed by Spellings -- that American higher education has serious challenges and needs to confront them head on. "She was telling us we can't be complacent, and that's very different from saying, 'You're terrible and we're going to stick it to you,' " Ward said.
"I could see how some people might interpret that to mean that if we just lay low for long enough, this will go away. But one thing higher education cannot do is not be on the running edge of the agenda," Ward added. "That would be a big mistake."
Ward said colleges and higher education associations should not wait for Spellings or the federal government generally to act; he cited efforts like the push by two groups of public universities to create a voluntary accountability system, and said he was enamored by a call in a recent Inside Higher Ed essay for colleges to evaluate their own financial aid practices to see if they are directing the appropriate amount of their own institutional money to need-based aid.
Charles Miller couldn't agree more with Ward's statement that colleges would be unwise to go into delay mode. The chairman of the secretary's commission, whose own frequently critical comments about higher education often rubbed Ward and other college leaders the wrong way, said he believed Spellings had gone out of her way in the speech to be collaborative and not to be "totally confrontational." But he suggested that academics should not walk away from the secretary's speech thinking that she was less than fully serious about pushing aggressively on a range of fronts.
"She sees the same urgency I do, and if [higher education officials] aren't hearing that, they'd better listen more carefully," Miller said.
Indeed, Spellings's speech did hammer home many of the same themes that some college leaders objected to in the commission's report, which Spellings fully embraced. Among other things, she:
- Suggested that the United States has poured money into higher education without knowing exactly what it is getting in return: "Over the years, we've invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and just hoped for the best. We deserve better."
- Questioned why tuition has "skyrocketed by 40 percent" in the last five years: "I want to know why ... and I know other parents do, too!"
- Criticized colleges for students' and parents' inability to know in advance how much a college education will cost them or how long it will take them to get a degree. "Believe it or not, we cannot answer these basic questions. And that's unacceptable."
To deal with those and other perceived problems, Spellings said she plans a mix of "things I can do immediately" without having to depend on the good will of members of Congress -- such as simplifying the process of applying for financial aid to help students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in half the time and notifying students before the spring of their senior year whether they qualify for financial aid -- and longer term efforts, including a November meeting aimed at reaching agreement on how accreditors might prod colleges to put more emphasis on how and how successfully their students learn.
"This is a wakeup call to American higher education," said Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, whose efforts to reach out to members of minority groups and other underserved students were praised both in the commission's report and in Spellings's speech. "Public universities, universities like ours, support this report and hope some of this stuff sticks, especially the accountability stuff."
Not everyone was thrilled with what the secretary said, and didn't say. Some college leaders noted that Spellings did not express her support for the commission's call to increase federal spending so that the Pell Grant for low-income students covers 70 percent of the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges (instead of the current 44 percent).
The Bush administration is just beginning to craft its 2008 budget and "those figures will be forthcoming," said Spellings. "But I'm well aware that we need to expand our commitment to need-based aid," she said -- though she added, with emphasis, that such an increase might be "tied somewhat to mitigate ... increases" in what colleges charge for tuition.
"I found it a little disconcerting" that she did not endorse the Pell proposal, "since that was one of the linchpins of the work of the commission," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
But Warren, who has been a leading critic of the commission's work, said he and his colleagues would look for ways to "move forward where we can work with the department." He noted that the six leading higher education associations had committed in a statement last week to hashing out one of the thorniest of issues on the commission's plate: the proposal to create a national database of student academic records, which Spellings soundly endorsed.
The tone that Spellings adopted in her speech -- kinder, gentler and less prescriptive than college leaders perceived Miller, as the commission's strongest voice, as having -- seems to have increased the optimism among higher education officials that something productive can come from the process that lies ahead, unclear as it is.
That confidence is likely only to be enhanced by the fact that the department's new point person for carrying out the commission's recommendations -- Sara Martinez Tucker, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation and President Bush's nominee for under secretary of education -- developed a reputation as one of the most evenhanded and level-headed members of the secretary's commission.