The Spellings Plan

Secretary favors student database and grants to colleges that measure learning, but calls discussion of Pell expansion premature.
September 26, 2006

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings plans a many faceted campaign to carry out the recommendations of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, including providing matching funds to colleges and states that collect and publicly report how well their students learn, building a "privacy protected" database of college students' academic records, and streamlining the process of applying for federal student aid.

Those are among a small number of specific efforts that Spellings will announce in a speech today in which she will endorse the work of the panel, which engaged in a year of study and debate, and challenge college leaders, policy makers and the public to help improve an American higher education system that she describes as slipping.

In a draft of her speech  and in an interview in her office Monday, Spellings offered a mixture of tough talk about higher education's shortcomings and praise for the seriousness with which she believes most college leaders and rank and file employees have approached the task of confronting those problems.

At a time when growing economic competition worldwide heightens the importance of higher education, she argues, "a lot of people are going to tell you that things are going just fine," she said in remarks prepared for delivery today. "But when 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require postsecondary education and fewer and fewer Americans are getting one, are we satisfied with fine? Is it 'fine' that college tuition has outpaced inflation, family income -- even doubling the cost of health care? Is it 'fine' that only half of our students graduate on time? Is it 'fine' that students graduate from college so saddled with debt they can’t buy a home or start a family?

"None of this seems 'fine' to me – not as a policy maker, not as a taxpayer, and certainly not as the parent of a college sophomore," Spellings plans to say in her speech. "The commission drew a similar conclusion. In their words, 'higher education has become … at times self-satisfied and unduly expensive.' "

To attack those problems, Spellings describes a multipronged effort to carry out the commission's final report that could require a mix of federal legislation and regulatory changes, additional investment -- and much more bully pulpit prodding to get other actors, including states, colleges and others, to do their parts. As part of this effort (which will be led by Sara Tucker Martinez, head of the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation and a member of the secretary's commission, whom President Bush has nominated as under secretary of education), Spellings lists five specific "actions" that she plans to take right away:

  • Expanding the "effective principles" of No Child Left Behind to high schools, renewing a push by President Bush that Congress has thus far failed to carry out over two budget cycles. Spellings suggests that the higher education commission's work could give a new impetus to this drive by showing how many high school students graduate unprepared to do college level work.
  • Streamlining the process by which students apply for financial aid, to "cut the application time in half and notify students of their aid eligibility earlier than spring of their senior year to help families plan" to pay for college. Spellings said in the interview that the commission's broader recommendation about reviewing and streamlining the entire federal system of student financial aid (which she described as "highly complicated, byzantine even") "certainly requires Congressional action," and that she expected the Education Department to come up with a framework for such a review in the coming months.
  • Building a national framework that provides "the same kind of privacy-protected student-level data we already have for K through 12 students," and using "that data to create a higher education information system." Spellings avoided using the loaded phrase "unit records" system to describe this project, which has been vigorously opposed by private colleges and leading Republicans in Congress, but her speech aims to ward off the objections they've raised about possible invasion of students' privacy. "This information would be closely protected; it would not identify individual students, nor be tied to personal information - it wouldn’t enable you to go online and find out how Margaret Spellings did in her political science classes," the draft of her speech says.
  • Providing "matching funds to colleges, universities and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes." She did not provide additional details about this plan.
  • Convening accreditors and other higher education leaders and policy makers in November to help prod the country's college accreditation system away from its emphasis on inputs "toward measures that place more emphasis on learning." "Currently, institutions are asked 'Are you measuring student learning?' and they check yes or no.  That must change. Whether students are learning is not a yes or no question -- it’s how? How much? And to what effect?"

Spellings also said she would convene a "summit" next spring to bring all of the players in the higher education conversation together "discuss the full slate of recommendations, our progress, and specific responsibilities going forward."

The secretary's speech makes little more than passing reference ("We must increase need-based aid") to the recommendation in the commission's report about which college leaders are most excited: a hugely expensive proposal to greatly expand federal spending on need-based aid, specifically by increasing the average Pell Grant over five years so that it covers 70 percent of the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges (instead of the current 44 percent).

In the interview, she said she was "sure the higher education community is looking for a big number on Pell right now." Asked whether the Bush administration planned to include significant new funds for the Pell program in its 2008 budget request, she said that "because we're just beginning the budget negotiation process for next year, that would be highly presumptive for me to opine in that regard."

"But I do agree with them that we need more need-based aid," she said, noting that the president has "called for more Pell aid in recent years" -- although his 2007 budget request called for keeping the size of the maximum grant flat, at $4,050, for the fifth straight year.

She said it was important for college leaders to remember that the proposed increase in need-based aid is "just one part of the equation" in the commission's report. "They talked about the need to better control cost, and I think a big part of that is we need more information" about colleges' finances and their performance, she added.

It was when talking about the Pell Grant in the interview that Spellings slipped into a rare bit of the higher ed bashing that college leaders, stung by harsh language in her commission's first draft, are likely to be on the lookout for. "The fact that the higher education community is rallying around the big number and the resource part of the discussion is to be anticipated, and I hope that they'll engage on the rest of it as well. It's only one feature [of the report]. It's not really a news flash: Higher ed community wants more money -- wow. What ought to be the news flash is that the higher education community is ready to look themselves in the mirror and confront the world that is happening to us, on behalf of the consumers and the American people we all serve."

Spellings said that she had generally "been encouraged" by the level of discourse and by the willingness of many college leaders and employees to acknowledge the system's challenges. "There are people in the community who have the 'give us more money and let us alone' philosophy, as they always have. But there are a lot of people who don't have that, and who understand that the world is going to pass us by if we don't get on this."

College leaders should not "fear this discussion," she said in the interview. "Their success in the future is going to be incumbent upon people understanding and valuing who they are and what they do," she said of America's colleges.

"I hope they will welcome the infusion of interest and hunger for understanding about this enterprise, and that that'll be good for them," she said, "good for them as they get more customers, as we serve people better, as we get additional resources, and as, God willing, we continue to be the world's leader in the knowledge economy.

"That's what's at stake here -- just that."


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