Spellings makes recommendations for higher education’s future

WASHINGTON – Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced Tuesday proposals to reform higher education that would increase need-based financial aid and create a national database to provide more information to families.

The speech, delivered at the National Press Club, was the most anticipated in Spellings’ tenure and comes at the culmination of a year-long process examining the future of higher education in the nation. The process began in Charlotte last year when Spellings announced the formation of a national committee to look at how higher education can improve. Last week, commissioners, including former Gov. James Hunt, submitted their final report, titled, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”

Even though Spellings stated that she did not “envision or want a national system of higher education,” it’s clear that many of the programs that she desires would ultimately increase the federal government’s role in higher education.

“On the contrary, one of the greatest assets to our system is its diversity – something we must protect and preserve,” Spellings said. “Our aim is simply to make sure the countless opportunities a college education provides is a reality for every American who chooses to pursue it.”

Many of the recommendations Spellings included in her speech focused on access, affordability and accountability. These were buzzwords central to many of the discussions commissioners had throughout their work.

In regard to access, Spellings said she wants to “expand the effective principles” of the No Child Left Behind law to make high schools more accountable in preparing students for college courses. Spellings was among the authors of No Child Left Behind when she served in the White House as a domestic policy advisor.

Currently, 40 percent of all college students take a remedial education course to learn the skills they should have learned in high school. Spellings said remedial programs cost taxpayers $1 billion annually.

“Ultimately, we pay the bill twice, because students don’t get what they need in high school,” Spellings said.

Spellings said she would continue to work for better alignment of high school standards with college workloads, increasing college-prep courses and advanced placement offerings.

“A high school diploma should be a ticket to success – including success in college,” Spellings said.

With affordability, Spellings focused most of her attention on the financial aid process. She wants to streamline the financial aid process and work with Congress to increase funding for need-based financial aid.

“I look forward to teaming up with Congress again to improve the financial aid process and help the students who need it most,” Spellings said.

Spellings added that more federal money wouldn’t necessarily lower costs. She said federal regulations, including more than 200 currently on the books, help to increase costs. “We can help lift that burden,” she said.

Spellings said families should be provided with more information on the true costs of attending college.

“For most families, this is one of the most expensive investments we make,” Spellings said. “Yet there is little to no information on why costs are so high and what we’re getting in return.”

Increased information was also a crucial aspect of Spellings’ discussions on accountability. Spellings proposes a plan to link together information systems throughout the nation to help with students in making decisions on what college to attend. Currently, there are 40 systems in the nation that serve this function. Spellings said the system would not provide personal information about a student.

She also wants to create incentives for states and institutions that to collect student outcome data. Spellings will also hold a meeting of accrediting agencies in November. This is in an effort to move accreditation toward measurements that place more emphasis on learning.

“Right now, accreditation is the system we use to put a stamp of approval on higher education quality,” Spellings said. “It’s largely focused on inputs, more on how many books are in a college library, than whether students can actually understand them. 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 and members of the commission will work to obtain congressional approval on many of these proposals. Cato’s Neal McCluskey said he has some concerns about the proposals Spellings seeks.

“On the presumption that the federal government must do for higher education what it has done for elementary and secondary schooling, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is calling for huge new federal intrusions into America’s colleges and universities,” McCluskey said. “Higher education doesn’t need more federal control, it needs less, because American schools’ ability to specialize and compete – not to follow rules and regulations – are what make them the envy of the world.”