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Assessing the Spellings Commission

March 21, 2007

Six months after the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued its report, Margaret Spellings is convening 300 people tomorrow to set a path for carrying out the panel's recommendations. Which makes this an appropriate time to ask: What sort of impact has the commission had so far? And has that impact, on the whole, helped higher education and its students?

The answers to those questions vary significantly, based on interviews with a wide array of leaders of college groups, members of the commission, nonprofit officials who deal with higher education, and others.

On one point there was general agreement: that the commission's most significant impact has been in significantly escalating the amount of attention being paid to important higher education issues among policy makers and the public, and in putting pressure on institutions, college groups, accreditors and others within higher education to contemplate and instigate change on their own. The attention generated by the commission's report and its aftermath has prompted significant discussion and a beehive of activity.

"Out in the grass roots, you hear lots of reactions, sometimes positive, sometimes suspicious," says Travis Reindl, leader of the Making Opportunity Affordable project, a joint effort of Jobs for the Future and the Lumina Foundation for Education that is consistent with the commission's thrust to cut colleges' costs. "You add it all together and it has definitely provoked thought in the higher education community broadly. But provoking a conversation is one thing; doing something with it is another."

And that's where the consensus tends to crumble -- when the subject turns to whether the resulting activity to date has been productive or wise. Not surprisingly, commission leaders like its chairman, Charles Miller, who is closely aligned with the Education Department officials who are trying to carry out the panel's recommendations, praise the department's most aggressive early efforts, which have focused on bolstering federal need-based aid (while at the same time reconsidering the structure of federal student aid programs) and using federal oversight of accrediting agencies to prod colleges to collect and report better information about how successfully they educate students.

"The president's budget proposal is going to virtually guarantee that the Pell Grant Program gets substantially improved over the next five years -- that's a pretty good outcome, don't you think?" Miller says. And the Education Department's efforts to pressure accrediting agencies through its process for recognizing them and by considering changes to federal rules that govern accreditation, he adds, has succeeded in drawing attention to higher education's little-understood but hugely influential system of self-regulation -- an accreditation system that Miller calls "the single biggest barrier to change in higher education."

Finding faculty leaders or college association heads who are highly critical of the commission's recommendations and of the department's efforts to carry them out is not hard; they came out of the woodwork to blast President Bush's proposal to pay for his Pell Grant increase in part by redistributing funds from other student-aid programs, for instance, and have derided the Education Department's attempts to expand the information it collects from colleges through accreditation or in its normal data collection efforts.

But even some higher education experts who believe that the commission was generally right in its diagnosis of what ails higher education -- and even in its big-picture ideas for fixing those problems -- think federal officials have made some fundamental errors early on in carrying out the panel's recommendations.

Defined broadly, they argue that the department should focus less on the "federal" and more on the "national," forgoing government-imposed directives in favor of inspiring, exhorting and prodding coalitions of colleges, higher ed associations and others to take their own voluntary steps or participate in emerging national efforts to cut colleges' costs,measure student learning outcomes, and make their internal workings and performance more transparent.

"The commission has propelled and framed an agenda for the need for a national strategy in higher education, building on a bunch of efforts that were already under way," says Jane V. Wellman, a higher education policy expert who is overseeing a nascent project on college costs for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "This country has never had a conversation and thought hard about how you do something 'national' in higher education, and it's a hard conversation."

But many of the steps the Education Department is taking now, particularly on accreditation, are "detracting from that momentum rather than adding to it," Wellman argues. "The conversation has become about regulating and [colleges'] beating it back, and it's not working. To succeed, we have to be successful in getting the leaders of the institutions that educate the vast majority of students to embrace it and own it, and to do that, you need a different tone."

The Post-Commission Landscape

Part of the difficulty in gauging the impact of the Spellings Commission in the six months since it issued its report is that there is no clearly defined, concrete process for carrying out its recommendations. The office of Sara Martinez Tucker, the Education Department's under secretary, is the closest thing there is to a hub of activity, and department officials are engaged in a wide range of behind-the-scenes activities (quietly bringing together groups of student aid experts to brainstorm about possible restructuring of federal financial aid programs, for instance) in addition to their more public initiatives like the federal rule making process on accreditation.

This week's higher education summit, in which nearly 300 people from colleges, Congress, states, the corporate world and elsewhere will gather to review the department's strategy on instituting the commission's proposals, will provide perhaps the clearest sense of the many balls in play.

But there is no question that much is happening -- and little dispute that the fortuitous timing of the commission's report has played a significant role in stimulating, if not necessarily starting, the activity. Even those who have openly criticized the commission's tactics and overall approach acknowledge that college officials, policy makers and the public are talking about the importance of higher education -- and the need to improve or strengthen it -- more than before, in no small part because of the secretary's commission.

"I do think the commission gave visibility to the discussion around policy issues with which higher education was already concerned, and actions related to those concerns have been ratcheted up" as a result, says David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which has vocally opposed the commission's push for a student unit records system and efforts to mandate specific measures of student learning. "As a consequence, these policies have been lifted up, and that's the upside."

Look around and it's not hard to find examples of higher education associations, coalitions of colleges, or education-focused foundations that are engaging as never before in efforts consistent with the commission's major goals of stimulating access to college, better measuring students' learning outcomes, holding colleges' costs down or increasing higher education's transparency. Here the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities propose a voluntary accountability system for their members. There the Council of Independent Colleges and the Association of American Colleges and Universities sponsor major projects (financed by the Teagle Foundation) in which liberal arts colleges use a new test to measure how much their students learn.

The College Board undertakes a major review of the logic and efficacy of the current financial aid system. Jobs for the Future and Lumina and the trustees' association examine college costs in a big way. State leaders and a nonprofit group push hard to improve the interaction between high schools and colleges, to bolster student preparation for higher education. (Anectodally, department officials also say that scores of colleges, states, even foreign higher education ministries, have requested bulk copies of the reports for trustees, deans or other officials -- hoping to stimulate conversations about quality, accountability or other topics.)

Many of those efforts were under way before the commission was started, and W. Robert Connor, president of the Teagle Foundation, questions whether the activity he sees among rank and file academics was prompted by the chatter out of Washington. "I sense a real sea change but what I don't sense is that it's particularly linked to the Spellings Commission," says Connor. "What we see at the ground level are faculty trying to do a better job, and that seems to me to be quite an independent phenomenon that may or may not be reinforced" at the national level. Some of the people we're talking to would say, 'Who’s Spellings?' "

Teagle's Connor is in the minority among those interviewed in doubting whether pressure from the Spellings panel has ratcheted up the activity; more typical is Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, who says that the commission and the department are "raising a lot of the right issues, and if you pulled that pressure off, the pace of change would likely be slower."

But Eaton and many others who've closely followed the commission and its aftermath take a dimmer view of the Education Department's approach so far in trying to carry out the panel's ideas.

In many ways, says Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Spellings panel, the department's stance had its origins in the commission's view that "higher education needed to be not only reformed but hit over the head with a 2 by 4." Miller and other panel leaders framed the discussion about higher education negatively -- "what shouldn't be instead of what can be," Zemsky says. "Think how different the message would have been received if it had been, 'We need you, American higher education, to lead this country into a new challenge, just like at other critical moments in this nation's life you have led us,' " he adds.

Just as the commission framed its discussion to a significant degree around what higher education is doing wrong, Zemsky and others say, the Education Department has structured its campaign to put in place the panel's recommendations (to date, at least) too much around trying to impose solutions on colleges and universities. Many of those interviewed say they have been particularly perplexed by the department's aggressive push to try to impose changes on higher education through the accreditation process (some also say it was clumsy for the Bush administration to try to use the 2008 budget setting to pursue the commission's idea of shrinking the number of federal financial aid programs, although a surprisingly large number of student aid experts support that concept in theory).

"When you increase government regulation and take over things that have traditionally been handled within the purview of self-regulation, that’s not good for higher education," says Eaton. "The problem is that higher education is being nationalized and to some extent federalized."

The question of "federal" vs. "national" comes up in many a conversation about the department's approach to the Spellings panel's proposals, and most of those interviewed -- and not just the higher education defenders who fill the lobbying groups of One Dupont Circle -- say department officials should emphasize the latter rather than the former.

"There is such a strong sentiment against overinvolvement of the federal government in education, not just from higher education but from state legislators and others, too, who haul out No Child Left Behind as an example," says Reindl of Jobs for the Future. "It's a question of when do you push and when do you pull. They need to position this as a national conversation, not as a federal conversation, because when you move too much in the area of regulating, that's when you provoke mainstream higher education to dig in its heels."

He adds: "Given the limited number of arrows in [Spellings'] quiver, she's trying to pick which ones she can use without the arrow coming straight back at them."

Kevin Carey, policy and research director at Education Sector, a think tank that analyzes the American education system, applauds Miller and the Spellings Commission for "talking about the fact that higher education needs to improve and is perhaps not as great as it likes to think, and as public perception would indicate." He says he is deeply troubled, for instance, by statistics showing how few college-educated Americans score well on tests of basic literacy. But while he is largely sympathetic to the commission's (and the Education Department's) motives, he tends to agree with critics that the department's efforts to seek changes through federal rules or laws is doomed -- "too much of an uphill fight."

He would prefer to see the department focus its strategy on improving the "transparency" of higher education, through more reporting of colleges' costs, student learning outcomes, and other data. "The strongest claim [the government] can make is just plain information," Carey says. "All we're asking in return for the tens of billions of dollars we spend every year is to disclose the information you already have about whether you're doing a good job. If good information gets out there about how well universities are serving students, other people will use it. That is where I hope they continue to push and draw the line and make something real happen."

Will "something real happen," ultimately, out of the report of the Spellings Commission? Tomorrow's summit may begin to answer that question, but chances are, says Larry Gold, who heads the American Federation of Teachers' higher education division, that the real answer is a ways down the road. Gold, who is among those troubled by the department's approach so far to carrying out the commission's recommendations, notes that Congress is about to begin work (again) on renewing the Higher Education Act, and that Democratic lawmakers are likely to have as much say as the Bush administration about what if any changes emerge from the panel's report.

"The commission will have had a constructive role if it leads to policy that advances higher education," says Gold. "The jury is still out. In two years, we'll know what the impact is.

He adds: "I do not today."

 

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