ASPEN, Colo. -- Like many of his predecessors, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is known mostly as a K-12 person; that’s his background and clearly his passion, and much of the department’s work is in what happens to students before they get to college. And not surprisingly, as a result, his public speeches and statements tend to veer toward K-12 (and increasingly early education) more than higher education.
That made his nearly hourlong interview here at the Aspen Ideas Festival noteworthy, even if he didn’t break any terrifically new ground or touch on some of the major topics that are occupying some of his staff members right now (like the department’s negotiations to force Corinthian Colleges to sell or close its 107 campuses with 72,000 students).
In the capable hands of his interviewer, David Leonhardt of The New York Times, Duncan offered fairly expansive comments about the college rating system the Education Department is producing (making clear just how personal an issue this is for President Obama and how intensely focused he is on it) and the seriousness of the student debt problem -- including conceding that the rhetoric about the issue sometimes fails to distinguish between good debt and bad debt.
First, for the many college officials who keep hoping that the administration will abandon its idea  of rating colleges: Don't hold your breath.
Asked by Leonhardt to respond to the criticism that the government can't rate colleges intelligently and effectively, Duncan reiterated that department officials know they have a hard job ahead. "We're going into this with a huge sense of humility," he said, and recognize that "intellectually it is difficult."
But given that the federal government puts out $150 billion in federal student assistance each year "and none of it is based upon outcomes," he said, "for us to do nothing is untenable."
Duncan's list of the outcomes he anticipated the system holding colleges accountable for suggested that the department has been listening (as its officials have insisted) to at least some of the criticisms lobbed at the ratings idea.
"Are you increasing your six-year graduation rate, or are you not?" he said. "Are you taking more Pell Grant recipients [than you used to] or are you not?" Both of those metrics, if they were to end up as part of the rating system, would hold institutions responsible for improving their performance, not for meeting some minimum standard that would require the government to compare institutions that admit very different types of students.
A rating system focused on the extent to which individual colleges got better over time would still surely be criticized, but by comparing a college to itself over time, rather than to institutions that were very different, it would blunt critiques that the system would aim to compare the incomparable.
Duncan did ask the ratings system's many critics to reserve judgment until they actually knew what it would look like.
"This system that people are reacting against doesn’t exist yet," he said. "Tell us what you like; help us do this.… Let's not be against something that has not been born yet."
Straight From the Top
Duncan also made it clear that the rating system, and the larger push for higher education accountability, is coming directly from the top of the Obama administration.
The education secretary described his relationships with President Obama and his wife Michelle, whose brother, Craig, and Duncan were high school friends in Chicago. "To have your friend become president is one of the craziest things to have happen," Duncan said.
Duncan described the paths that Michelle Obama and the president took to get the elite higher educations they gained, and the many letters the president receives from former students burdened with debt.
"He talks about this all the time," Duncan said. "He was talking about this in a cabinet meeting yesterday."
Student debt is driving much of the president's interest in the rating system and accountability generally -- but Duncan conceded in response to a question from Leonhardt that, as the Times writer recently argued,  some of the rhetoric about student debt is overheated.
"If you have reasonable debt and you're getting a college degree," the education secretary said, that debt is probably worth it, because it has been demonstrated that a college degree is still "the best investment you can make.
"But if you have inordinate debt and no degree, you're in a worse situation than where you started," he added.
Leonhardt pushed Duncan further, describing someone who had taken out $30,000 in student loans to earn a bachelor's degree from a "good state university." "Are you comfortable with that person having $30,000 in debt?" he asked Duncan.
"In a perfect world, it would be less than that," the secretary said. "But on the top 10 things that keep me up at night, that's not on it. It's not the end of the world. But where you have $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 and no degree, that is the end of the world. That is catastrophic."