Margaret Spellings Looks Back

In podcast interview, education secretary assesses her legacy, seeing progress in elevating higher ed issues on the national agenda but broad failure to confront the problems.
October 6, 2008

Margaret Spellings may be in the final weeks of her term as U.S. education secretary, but last week proved that she's not packing it in early. In a speech at Harvard University, she unveiled a plan to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid.

Spellings may not be quite ready to call it a term yet, but she is beginning, both in speeches like the one at Harvard and in an interview with Inside Higher Ed in her Washington office last week, to assess the impact of her nearly four years in office.

The interview covered some issues of immediate concern, notably the perceived short-term success that the department and Congress have had in ensuring that federal student loans remain available to borrowers and Spellings's hope that the Treasury Department will not need to use the additional powers granted to it to help student loan providers in the new $700 billion bailout package for the financial industry.

"I feel cautiously optimistic," Spellings said, rapping her knuckles on the wood conference table in her office. "I'm pleased we took action when we did, and that Congress acted with dispatch ... and so far, students seem to be getting the financing they need... I understand that there is broad authority for the Treasury secretary ... and there is recognition by this department that this will be somewhat of an ongoing challenge. We're prepared to solve it here at the Department of Education."

Looking Back

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Spellings credits her Commission on the Future of Higher Education with putting postsecondary education more squarely on the national agenda and with prodding college groups to undertake their own efforts to make higher education more effective.

She also argues, though, that much work remains to be done by college leaders and by federal policy makers to clearly define an agenda for attacking the big problems -- inequitable access, insufficient capacity, high prices -- that confront higher education. Without a clear agenda, she said, Congress and the next administration are likely to continue to produce unfocused, scattershot legislation like the Higher Education Act renewal enacted this summer.

"We haven’t had, notwithstanding the commission and all that it did, a big enough understanding about what are our goals as a country about higher education," Spellings said in the interview. "Who should it be for? Where should it be available? What should the cost be? Should it be affordable to average Americans? I don’t think we have a policy frame that we’re really operating in, and that's why you get a Higher Ed Act that is this, that and the other thing."

She added: "I would give Congress an incomplete on the latest reauthorization," because "they haven't fully appreciated the big picture of some of these issues. That's why there needs to be more leadership from the field, from really all of us who care about these issues."

That implicit criticism of Congress's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the latest Higher Education Act legislation was far tamer than some of the choice words Spellings aimed at the legislative branch last winter (particularly in a stinging op-ed piece in the Washington publication Politico ) after Congressional leaders blocked Spellings and the Education Department from issuing regulations to govern higher education accreditation.

Such harsh criticism has been relatively rare coming directly from Spellings during her term as education secretary; even though her administration has been seen as being highly critical of higher education, most of the toughest rhetoric has come not from her but from surrogates such as Charles Miller, the businessman who headed her higher ed commission, and Sara Martinez Tucker, her under secretary of education.

The Spellings Commission was accused of confronting rather than engaging leaders in higher education, in ways that college officials say diminished its potential effectiveness. Spellings largely rejects that critique, crediting the commission with producing a "very substantive body of work ... developed through a very open, transparent, far-reaching process that has kickstarted a lot of initiative in the [higher education] community and a lot of awareness outside of the community."

Asked if her commission was unnecessarily confrontational when collaboration might have proven more effective, Spellings cited comments made this month by leaders of two groups of public universities in explaining why their new accountability Web site does not allow students and families to compare the performance of multiple colleges against each other. It's all well and good to say, as the college leaders did, that families want to be able to sit down at their kitchen tables to compare colleges, Spellings said.

"But what if you don't have a kitchen table?" she said. "What if you’re not a sophisticated enough player to look at all these things, or you're first generation, or not English speaking…. There's a little bit of a disconnect, if you will, between some in the higher education community, the academy, and the 'kitchen table,' and to the extent that some on the commission represented those at the kitchen table, [college leaders] may have seen it as controntational."

The other major accusation leveled against Spellings by college and university leaders is that her department showed a willingness, if not an eagerness, to expand the federal role in higher education through aggressive regulation, particularly in the realm of accreditation. (Congress has also shown that willingness, college leaders note, as evidenced by the expansive approach the new Higher Education Act renewal takes in legislating new areas such as campus emergencies and illegal file sharing on campuses.)

To fix the perceived problems facing higher education, "I think you do have to have federal solutions, and I think you have to have federal leadership," said Spellings. "We're a one-third investor in American higher education, when you include research dollars, and that's not inconsequential in the least. Clearly it's a place for federal leadership, and we are involved."

Despite the lack of consensus that Spellings describes among policy makers and the public about the key issues facing higher education, she acknowledges that the need to get more Americans into and through college is the foremost challenge ahead. Did the approaches taken by the Spellings Education Department in the last two years -- particularly its emphasis on trying to compel accrediting agencies and colleges to collect and report student learning outcomes -- further that goal?

"I do believe that more information, more transparency, is an essential part of informing the public as to what's at issue and what the potential solutions are," Spellings said. But she insisted, as she has done repeatedly in recent months, that her administration does not favor excessively standardized approaches to student learning.

"I want to take this opportunity to say, once again ... that I certainly have not supported, and would not support, a one-size-fits-all ratings system or accountability system from the federal government," Spellings said, her voice rising. "When I read this crap on these blogs, people saying, 'Whaaa, Margaret Spellings is trying... .' It's just not the case. It's emphatically not true.

"I'm encouraged by the kinds of things I'm seeing in the community in these fledgling pilot-type deals," she said, referring to accountability efforts from college associations, like the one from the groups of public colleges. "But to just throw it out there, for the American family, for their 'kitchen table,' given all that the American family has to sort through, well, we could be more of a helpmate in that process."


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