Monday, September 11, 2006

U.S. education chief backs panel's call for college reforms

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was in Austin this past weekend. She provides more detail on what the DOE wants with respect to higher education accountability. She's calling for increased needs-based financial aid, but "any increase in financial aid would be linked to greater information disclosure by colleges and new measures intended to enhance quality and contain ever-rising higher education costs."


U.S. education chief backs panel's call for college reforms
Margaret Spellings, visiting Austin, supports financial aid boost, increased accountability

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Monday, September 11, 2006

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, visiting Austin over the weekend, all but endorsed a special panel's sweeping recommendations to increase financial aid for college students, measure student learning with standardized tests and require colleges to disclose data on graduation rates, spending and other matters.

Spellings, in town to address community leaders at a luncheon and attend the football game between the University of Texas and Ohio State University, said that none of the panel's recommendations had given her pause, including a much-criticized proposal to create a national database for tracking individual students' progress through higher education. She said she was prepared to seek a significant increase in the federal government's $80 billion annual outlay for financial aid, provided that colleges and universities become more trans- parent about their operations.

The remarks were the most detailed Spellings has offered publicly on the recommendations since the Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued the last in a series of draft reports a month ago. A final report with only minor changes is expected shortly, and Spellings said she plans to outline a plan for acting on the recommendations at a news conference in Washington on Sept. 26.

"I think the commission's work obviously was high quality, very much on point," she said. "It did exactly what it was supposed to do, and that is frame the big issues and precipitate discussion and interest. I consider this kind of the beginning of the beginning of all the discussion on higher education. And it's high time and overdue."

Spellings formed the commission a year ago in an effort to improve the affordability, accessibility and consumer friendliness of higher education. She named Charles Miller, a Houston investor and former chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, to lead the panel. A friend of President Bush's, Miller was something of a mentor to Spellings when she served as Bush's education adviser during his term as governor of Texas.

Miller, who accompanied Spellings in Austin, said he took issue with some leaders of private colleges and universities who have criticized the report, especially a provision calling for a national "unit record" database to track students' progress and thereby hold schools more accountable for fulfilling their educational mission. Critics say such a system would endanger students' privacy.

Miller and Spellings rejected that argument, asserting that names and Social Security numbers would be protected. Miller said private colleges "are afraid of transparency, and yet they take a huge amount of federal money. What do they have to hide? A private college doesn't have any more right to that data than the government does."

Spellings said the database would help assess higher education outcomes, because current records only track first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students. The proposed database would also track cross-state transfer students and returning students.

"That's fewer and fewer learners in America," she said, referring to the growing tendency of students to transfer among institutions or suspend their studies temporarily. "What is important here is that we use information in a protected way to better manage the system and to aid parents and families. And we're not doing that now."

Of the commission's call for a significant increase in need-based financial aid, Spellings said, "Don't look for me on September 26th to give a specific amount. Obviously, I hope that we will find ways to do more. And obviously, this is going to be a discussion that we'll ultimately have with Congress."

But any increase in financial aid would be linked to greater information disclosure by colleges and new measures intended to enhance quality and contain ever-rising higher education costs — "all of the sorts of things you would expect public policymakers to ask," she said.

The U.S. Education Department might be able to overhaul other aspects of the financial aid system without congressional approval. Making the lengthy federal aid application shorter and simpler, as the commission recommended, is a case in point.

"That's one of the things that the commission has recommended that I can certainly take action on administratively," Spellings said.

She expressed support for the commission's recommendation that higher education institutions measure student learning. Various standardized tests are intended to assess the growth of learning during a student's time in college. An early draft by the commission called for states to require such testing, but in response to criticism that the panel was being too intrusive, the final draft says they simply "should" measure learning.

"Is it appropriate and right and righteous to ask, 'What value was added for the tens of thousands of dollars invested by parents and families and the government — federal, state and local?' You bet," Spellings said.

The education secretary said it's important to remember that the federal government is but one player in higher education.

"We need to inspire and spur innovation and effort from the private sector and from states and localities as well," she said. "I'm very encouraged by the flavor of that in the commission's report. I do not want to be — and I'm pretty sure my successors would feel the same way — the national czarina of higher education in America."; 445-3604

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