President Obama’s push for a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually influence how the federal government doles out student aid is the most ambitious higher education proposal of his administration. The last serious push to so significantly transform federal higher education policy came in 2006 under Bush administration Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
That year, a 19-member commission -- known as the Spellings Commission -- released a report on the future of higher education that called, broadly speaking, for the federal government to play a larger role in promoting accountability and transparency at colleges and universities. Following the report, Spellings pushed for, among other things, an accreditation system that focuses more on student outcomes, a restructured student financial aid system that provides incentives to keep down costs, and a federal database that tracks individual students' performance. The later of those proposals was blocked head-on by Congress, while the other two were met with mixed success.
In an interview, Spellings said that while she supports the overarching accountability themes Obama is pushing, the concept of linking federal aid to student outcomes goes too far, at least at this point, because it is predicated on having a data system that, right now, does not exist. Excerpts of the interview follow.
Q. What’s your reaction to the higher education plan President Obama unveiled last month?
A. It’s encouraging that he’s weighed in on the issue. His leadership matters. He has a big microphone. It’s the right issue at the right time, and I commend him for engaging on it. Having said that, some of the proposals are unworkable and ill-conceived in the short run. We need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences. It’s a little bit of a bridge too far, particularly when the data is so lacking at the moment.
Q. One of those data-related obstacles, arguably, is the lack of a federal “unit record” database. Do you support one?
A. I do indeed. What we have now is sort of these cul-de-sac systems with states doing their own thing. That’s better than nothing. But particularly in a commodity, if you will, that is so interstate, we should do better than that given our very robust investments in higher education at the federal level. So, yes, I think we need a federal unit record system and called for it many years ago.
Q. Some of your Republican colleagues are the biggest opponents of such a system. Would you encourage them to support it?
A. Well it’s opposed both on the left and the right. I would encourage my Republican colleagues to think about the merits of it, absolutely. If we’re going to invest federal tax dollars, then we ought to know what we’re getting for it. There’s an intellectual honesty here. If it’s right and righteous for us to have accountability systems for Head Start programs or any number of spending programs within the federal government -- which I think taxpayers expect -- then why is this area sacrosanct? And, frankly, if our higher education system is so excellent, it seems to me that the academy would want to prove that and show that. What are they afraid of?
Q. Were you surprised that the White House is taking on the traditional higher education lobby so directly by pushing to link federal student aid with student outcomes?
A. I was a little surprised, particularly when in the first four years of the administration, their higher ed agenda was gainful employment, federalizing student loans, interest rates on student loans, and the wonkery of higher ed policy -- as opposed to the broad frame of affordability, accountability, transparency, access, and all the things the Spellings Commission talked about. If I were advising the president, I probably would have had him do it the opposite way. But it’s an important shot across the bow that he’s serious about the topic.
Q. Do you think Obama’s proposals, many of which echo the reforms you pushed during your tenure as education secretary, are being met with a different reaction than yours were?
A. I do. First of all, that was six years ago, and it was almost heretical for things that were in the Spellings Commission to be said in public. In the last six years, there’s been a lot of activity, external to the government, that has softened the ground and made this more socially acceptable to speak about: the foundation world (Gates, Lumina, and others who have invested heavily in it), the business community, the civil rights community, states, governors, and higher ed.
May I also say that the academy is more likely to give a Democrat president, who was an academic, more leeway than a Republican, by any measure?
Q. Is that leeway superficial or do you think it will actually impact policy?
A. The behind-the-scenes opposition and work to kill see these things will be aggressive and effective, ultimately. There will be a lot of happy talk, publicly, but the net result will be the same.
Q. What’s the political outlook for Obama’s proposals?
A. It’s political proffering 101 to always lay out more than you think you can get, and compromise with something short of that. So, point being, I hope he’ll get half a loaf. I think the ranking system may give way while a data system gains bipartisan traction and support. What’s been interesting to me is that while Hill Republicans seem to be shy on these issues, this is the kind of thing you’re hearing Republican governors talk about all the time and do, whether it’s Bill Haslam in Tennessee, or Rick Perry in Texas, or Mitch Daniels in Indiana. There are Republicans who think we ought to know what’s going on in higher education.
Q. Some critics of Obama’s plan have referred to it, disdainfully, as No Child Left Behind for higher education. Is that a fair or accurate comparison?
A. To the extent that they mean it to cast aspersions, no. To the extent they mean it as a way to provide some transparency to an enterprise that we’re spending a lot of money on with little knowledge about what we’re getting for it, I guess it is fair, but I wouldn’t frame it that way. No Child Left Behind was about meeting a stated goal -- i.e., closing the achievement gap, all children reading on grade level -- over a period of time, and taking action when that wasn’t happening. Those are sound management principles in K-12 education, higher education, Head Start programs, and in life.
Q. Notwithstanding the obstacles to implementation, do Obama’s proposals shift the accountability debate?
A. Well, the ostrich approach is not sustainable. Good academic leaders are taking the signals and moving along these accountability lines. There are some, in particular in the private higher ed ranks, that have taken a “this too shall pass” attitude. That’s less sustainable now -- I feel like it’s “do it before it’s done to you.” Boards of trustees, governors, the public are going to ask for this type of accountability. It’s just raised the level of expectations.