The Spellings Agenda

February 15, 2005

Margaret Spellings gave her first address to a college audience Monday, telling college presidents that they should work to provide better information about their institutions, and that they should back President Bush's budget plans.

The college presidents, gathered at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, gave Spellings a friendly reception and many said that she had a point about the need to provide students and their families with better information about higher education. But many grumbled (mostly privately) about her defense of the Bush budget and noted that the secretary left the meeting immediately after her talk, without taking questions.

On the question of information, Spellings noted that the government does not lack for data. But she pointed to flaws in data collection. "We can tell you almost anything you want to know about first-time, full-time degree-seeking students who have never transferred," she said. But that's a minority of students.

Noting that she is the mother of a high school senior, Spellings described the difficulty of comparing colleges in meaningful ways. Prospective students and their families should be able to compare such things as how long it typically takes students to graduate, and whether those rates differ for minority students or certain majors, she said. Parents should be able to find data to determine whether they are better off paying for five or six years at a public college where students may not be able to enroll in required courses in four years, or paying for a more expensive private institution where students might have a better shot at finishing in four years.

States and colleges need "to adopt common languages and metrics," Spellings said. Then students and parents will be able to make decisions "based on information, not anecdote."

There were plenty of nods in the audience during the portion of the talk on information. But during the talk on the Bush budget, there were more than a few raised eyebrows.

Spellings talked about the president's proposal to create a new vocational program for community colleges. But several noted that she said nothing about the existing programs that help community colleges that the president's budget would gut.

And Spellings talked about the Bush plan to increase the maximum Pell Grant (a measure much appreciated by college officials), but she said he would pay for it through "savings and efficiencies." In fact the budget has proposed eliminating several popular programs that help disadvantaged students prepare for and enroll in college.

Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, said of the secretary's speech: "Secretary Spellings says the president 'believes that financial state should not be a barrier to access.' Yet, by attempting to kill Upward Bound, Talent Search and Gear Up, the Bush administration is building additional barriers to access for thousands and even millions of low-income first generation students who depend on these programs."

He added that "to characterize the proposed cuts simply as 'savings and efficiencies' is the most cynical kind of smokescreen and attempt at misdirection."

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