Close to the Vest

Education secretary-designate Arne Duncan gave few details about his goals for higher education during Tuesday's Senate confirmation hearing.

January 14, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Arne Duncan took a step toward becoming the next U.S. secretary of education Tuesday, but the Chicago public schools chief had little to say about higher education during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Duncan, heralded as a reformer in elementary and secondary education, gave few indications of what the public might expect from him when it comes to postsecondary education. That's in part because senators were far more interested in talking about early childhood education and the No Child Left Behind law.

Even so, Duncan spoke mostly in generalities when specific questions on higher education came his way. Asked about federal oversight of student loan programs, for instance, Duncan sidestepped some of the thornier issues that have occupied Congressional attention in the past year. Instead, he gave an answer that would seem pretty palatable to just about everyone:

“We need to expand access. We need to expand affordability,” Duncan said. “We need to create opportunities for students, so this is an area where I want to spend a lot of time and attention.”

While Duncan frequently spoke of “access” and “affordability,” he didn’t mention a third “a-word” -- “accountability.” The omission was significant, given the fact that pressure for greater accountability in higher education has been a crucial issue for Margaret Spellings, who is in her final days as President Bush's secretary of education. Duncan did note, however, that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge internationally when it comes to the educational achievement of its citizenry.

“The United States hasn’t so much fallen behind as other countries have passed us,” he said. “Other countries have taken this much more seriously. And whether you look at high school graduation rates or college graduation rates we’ve been sort of stagnant while others have been soaring. That’s not a good thing, again, from an economic standpoint, from a human standpoint; we have to do something dramatically better.”

In one of the few indications of specific reforms he might undertake that would affect higher education, Duncan joined a chorus of critics calling for simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form.

“I don’t know if any of you have completed [a FAFSA] lately, but you basically have to have a Ph.D. to figure that thing out,” he said. “In and of itself [the form is] a huge barrier.… Any impediments like that, anything that isn’t working in the best interest of our students who are desperately trying to go on to some form of higher education … we have to be smart and pragmatic and thoughtful in trying to move those barriers.”

The hearing, held before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, gave yet another indication that Duncan will probably have a smooth road toward confirmation. Republicans and Democrats alike praised him as a sharp reformer with a compelling history. While he lacks significant experience in the world of higher education, Duncan’s life has been steeped in education. As a child, and later while in college at Harvard University, Duncan worked in his mother’s tutoring center for children on Chicago’s south side. Duncan’s late father was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

One of the more pointed questions in Tuesday’s hearing came from Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. Burr pressed Duncan on whether the government should shorten the eligibility period for Pell Grants, which can now be awarded for a maximum of 18 semesters.

“How long should the federal government be obligated to extend Pell to a full-time student who can’t find a way to graduate? Currently we extend Pell for 18 … semesters,” Burr said. “If that were extrapolated for a full-time student, that would mean they would stay in nine years and we would still be subsidizing what most students achieve or try to achieve in four years. Do we need to rethink this?”

In a candid response, Duncan said he simply didn’t know.

“That’s a good question that I don’t know the answer to and need to take a look at,” he said.

Duncan suggested, however, that students trying to complete college may have a new motivation: his boss. The “Obama effect” is already inspiring young people to take education more seriously, Duncan suggested.

“What you see is children saying not just that ‘I want to be the president like the president-elect,’ they’re saying, ‘I want to be smart like the president-elect,’ “ Duncan said. “And so we have a time collectively as a country to capitalize on something I think is simply extraordinary. Never before has being smart been so cool.”


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