Keith White

Wednesday September 27, 2006

Speaking at the National Press Club yesterday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings unveiled a five-part Action Plan for America’s Higher Education System. The action plan represents a significant attempt to change the way students receive aid for secondary schooling and approach their college search. The speech, while offering some immediate action on student aid, was more descriptive than prescriptive; long on the need for greater post-secondary accountability and access, but short on remedies for America’s ailing post-secondary education system

Spellings’ recommendations, based on a recent report by the department’s Higher Education Commission, comes in the wake of a recently published report that found 40 states receiving Fs in college and university affordability, even as more jobs require a college degree.

Spellings spoke about the need to ease the difficulties talented poor and minority students’ face when pursuing post-secondary education. She called for the scrapping of our nation’s current federal aid system for college. The most common federal program for such aid is FAFSA, which is one of 17 federal programs for college aid. Such a system must be stream-lined and its budget increased, according to Spellings, to ensure that more students have access to a college education.

Spellings also pledged to simplify the FAFSA form and get offers of federal aid to students before the spring of their senior year of high school.

Colleges and universities were also called on to provide data on student performance and learning. Currently, our nation’s accreditation system for universities and colleges emphasizes factors such as the number of books, libraries, percent of faculty with a doctorate, and SAT scores of the freshman class, and not actual student learning. Spellings urged our nation’s universities and colleges to make the transformation from prestige-based to performance-based rankings. She noted that no current ranking system directly measures student learning or performance.

Spellings hopes such data will become the basis for a publicly available, national database on post-secondary education. Students then would be able to investigate what schools best fit their academic and financial needs. This proposal seeks to build off current state-wide systems and encourage institutional support by offering matching federal funds for schools that publish performance data.

In addition, Spellings called for a reformulation of how university and college accreditation is determined. She will meet with the accreditation board of universities and colleges and encourage them to add emphasis on student performance and learning in their accreditation process.

Spelling’s speech was meant to push for aggressive changes in how our higher-education system works during the twilight years of the Bush administration. The capstone of the drive will be a higher education summit that will bring together parent and student groups, student loan industry representatives, business groups, and college and university officials to discuss the challenges facing our America’s post-secondary education system. Many of the proposals enjoy wide political support in principle, but storm clouds are already forming over implementation. Few oppose increasing federal aid or simplifying the application process, but Spellings offered no financial commitments. Spellings only touted the Bush administration’s past increase in student federal aid to students in need and who performed highly in the fields of science, technology, and math.

This omission portends potential cuts in certain types of student aid. This is nothing new. In 2004 critics charged the administration with effectively cutting Pell Grants.

Senator Edward Kennedy today criticized the commission’s report for failing to increase Pell Grant funding and not thoroughly investigating the operations of the student loan industry.

These proposals will now have to be fleshed out. Private universities and colleges, in particular, will have to figure out whether they will measure performance and how they would do so. Spellings repeatedly pointed out the biggest problem with our higher education system is how little information is actually available to its consumers. Whether its costs or student performance, there is little data to show where our nation’s strengths and weaknesses are in higher education. But in an environment where U.S. News & World Report rankings dictate the number of applications schools receive, any opening of the “black box” of performance will be received cautiously by university presidents and boards nationally.

The report’s lone dissenting vote by American Council of Education President David Ward points to this very difficultly. His statement suggesting “a false sense of crisis” reflects the view of many universities and colleges that such reforms are not urgently needed.

William G. Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, offered this lackluster prediction, to the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Reports on higher education get a lot of press while they are written. But once they are done, they become dead letters.”

While the specific proposals that may emerge from Spellings’ push may not please all, ignoring the problem would be a mistake. Post-secondary institutions are losing their edge against international competitors at a time when American families are paying more and more to guarantee their children a college education. And if nothing changes, our nation’s young people will soon find themselves with lower educational attainment, on average, than their parents. The problem is as real as it is harmful.

In a global economy powered by knowledge-based businesses, failing to address our higher education system promises to harm our future prosperity.