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Spellings Lays Out 'Action Plan' for Colleges The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6.10.6 (for all) http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i07/07a00101.htm [Related material appended.]
Secretary cites urgent need to track student progress and increase financial aid
By KELLY FIELD Washington
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wasted no time in responding to the final report by her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, announcing her "action plan" in a speech at the National Press Club here last week.
The speech, which came less than a week after Ms. Spellings formally received the report, detailed the first five steps the administration will take to turn the panel's recommendations into reality. Chief among them is the creation of a national system, known as a "unit record" database, which would track students' progress through college; the simplification of the federal financial-aid application process; and the provision of grants to colleges and states that test their students and report the results.
The secretary described her plan as "the beginning of a process of long-overdue reform," saying she would take up "the full slate" of the commission's recommendations at a spring summit with higher-education leaders. She said she was moving ahead with those proposals "that I can do immediately" because "time is of the essence."
"There is an urgency here," she said in an interview with The Chronicle in her office the day before her speech. "The academy is underestimating the American public -- the anxiety and urgency about this."
Many of the report's recommendations will require legislative action, a fact that Ms. Spellings acknowledged in a question-and-answer session following her speech.
"I understand this is going to be a shared discussion, not only with Congress, but with the community," she said in response to a question about what she could accomplish through regulation.
In her speech, Ms. Spellings offered a mixture of praise and admonition for American colleges, describing them as "the envy of the world," and, at the same time, dangerously complacent.
She challenged the notion that "things are going just fine" in higher education, asking: "Is it fine that college tuition has outpaced inflation, family income, even doubling the cost of health care? Is it fine that only half of our students graduate on time? Is it fine that students graduate from college so saddled with debt that they can't buy a home or start a family?"
But her tone was more conciliatory than many college officials had expected, and her focus was on discourse, not dictates. While she spoke of expanding "the effective principles of No Child Left Behind" to high schools, she made no mention of mandatory testing for college students. And while she proposed a test of a unit-record database under development in her department's research division, she stressed that participation in the pilot program would be voluntary.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, and the only commission member who refused to sign the panel's report, said he left the speech reassured.
"Many of my deepest anxieties were diminished," said Mr. Ward. "The federal role could have been rather aggressive. I didn't get that model at all. She talked about a process and dialogue."
Arthur J. Rothkopf, a member of the commission who is president emeritus of Lafayette College and senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was even more effusive.
"It's absolutely on target," he said of the speech. "She's moving rapidly but judiciously."
And Arturo Madrid, a commissioner who is a professor of humanities at Trinity University, in Texas, said the report's focus on five "first steps" was "right on."
"This was a chance for her to get at the big picture, to get a little focus," he said. "It would be very easy to get too spread out."
But another commissioner, Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, said he was concerned about "things being put off until the future" and "errors of omission" in the secretary's speech.
"The rhetoric is good, but there is a lot to be done," he said.
Meanwhile, some college officials and lobbyists said they remained concerned with the secretary's proposal to test the prototype unit-record database.
The department first proposed the creation of such a database in 2004, saying it would allow the agency to measure a college's performance more accurately by generating better information about retention and graduation rates and by enabling the department, for the first time, to track the academic progress of transfer students.
The idea has been opposed, however, by private colleges, civil libertarians, and conservatives, who think it would violate existing privacy laws.
In March, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 609, a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which sets policy for the Education Department, lawmakers specifically forbade the agency to develop such a data system.
In her speech, Ms. Spellings sought to reassure critics of the proposal, stressing that the system would be "privacy protected" and "would not identify individual students, nor be tied to personal information."
"It wouldn't enable you to go online and find out how Margaret Spellings did in her political-science class," she said.
Concerns About Privacy
But critics of the plan were unconvinced. In an interview following the secretary's speech, Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said private colleges remained concerned "about taking control from parents and students over who they hand their records to."
"We think you can get the data you need for accountability without going to student unit data," she added.
Asked in the interview with The Chronicle how she would overcome the opposition that derailed the unit-record plan two years ago, Ms. Spellings said she would give a better explanation to Congress on how the system would work. She will also remind lawmakers that "except for the private colleges, the higher-education community is for this," she said.
"Lots of folks in the public systems that I'm aware of ... are crying for this ability to go to their state legislatures and make the case for resources," she said. "They are crippled by the lack of information as well."
A Pell Increase?
Other lobbyists and commissioners said they were disappointed that the secretary did not endorse the commission's recommendation to raise the purchasing power of the typical Pell Grant to cover 70 percent of the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges over the next five years.
While Ms. Spellings called for an increase in need-based aid, she did not propose a specific dollar amount, saying that the number would be negotiated with the White House as part of the budget-development process.
"We all share a commitment to Pell," she said in response to a question from an audience member about whether the administration would propose an increase for the Pell Grant program. "As we negotiate the budget, the dollar figures will be forthcoming."
Robert M. Shireman, who was an education-policy adviser in the Clinton administration and now directs the Project on Student Debt, said he had "hoped for more."
Mr. Shireman said higher-education advocates will be watching to see whether the secretary can make the case for the Pell program in a time of war and budget deficits.
"This will be a test of leadership for her," he said, adding that the "summit will be far more effective if there is funding for need-based aid on the table."
And James B. Hunt Jr., a commissioner and former Democratic governor of North Carolina, who had pushed for the five-year increase in the Pell Grant program, said he hoped the administration would at least propose the first-year increase.
The American Council on Education has estimated that the commission's proposal would cost the federal government an additional $9-billion to $12-billion a year.
Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, said achieving that spending level "will be a challenge, given the financial difficulties that face the country."
"But," he added, "if we are really serious about need-based aid, Pell Grants are the place to start."
Several days before the Secretary's speech, the six major college lobbying groups released a letter outlining the steps they will take -- and those they believe their member institutions should take -- in response to the commission's recommendations.
The lobbyists described the letter, which was sent to their member colleges, as an effort to respond "with one voice" to several recent reports, including the commission's.
"This allows us to join the debate constructively and to embrace a reform agenda that is consistent with the challenging job of our campus execs who are on the ground," said Mr. Ward in a conference call about the letter.
The letter, titled "Addressing the Challenges Facing American Undergraduate Education," was also an attempt to counter claims, made by the secretary's commission, that higher education is averse to change.
As the lobbyists put it in a memorandum accompanying the letter, "Our institutions are not only dynamic and diverse but ready to work proactively to improve undergraduate education from an already firm foundation."
The letter's message to colleges was clear: Change must continue to come from within, or it will come from without. As Mr. Ward explained, "We're arguing that the more we could do ourselves in a reform mode, the better. I'm not sure there is anyone who thinks regulatory solutions would be the most desirable."
Following the Secretary's speech, Mr. Ward again urged colleges to act on the commission's recommendations, saying it would be a "big mistake" to try to duck them.
"There may be people who believe that if they lay low long enough, this will go away," he said. "But I think they've caught the tail of something they're going to hang onto."
THE SECRETARY'S 'ACTION PLAN'
Last week, as part of her response to the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed five steps that she said would make American colleges more accessible, more affordable, and more accountable: * Expand "the effective principles" of the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools, while continuing "efforts to align high-school standards with college work" and increasing "access to college-prep classes such as Advanced Placement." * Streamline the process of applying for federal student aid, to "cut the application time in half" and notify students of their eligibility "earlier than the spring of their senior year, to help families plan." * Create a federal database to track students' academic progress. * Provide matching funds to colleges, universities, and states that collect and publicly report student "learning outcomes." * Convene members of accrediting groups in November "to move toward measures that place more emphasis on learning." ______________________________________________________________
Spellings: Commission Is the Beginning of 'Long Overdue Reform' http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i07/07a02301.htm
Excerpts from U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's prepared remarks about the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, delivered at the National Press Club, in Washington, on September 26:
Our universities are known as the best in the world. And a lot of people will tell you things are going just fine. But when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education, are we satisfied with "just" fine? Is it "fine" that college tuition has outpaced inflation, family income, even doubling the cost of health care? Is it "fine" that only half of our students graduate on time? Is it "fine" that students often graduate so saddled with debt they can't buy a home or start a family? None of this seems "fine" to me. Not as a policy maker, not as a taxpayer, and certainly not as the mother of a college sophomore.
The commission drew a similar conclusion. In their words, "Higher education has become at times self-satisfied and unduly expensive." In fact, times have changed. Nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree, a degree only one-third of Americans have. Where we once were leaders, now other nations educate more of their young adults to more-advanced levels than we do.
Today I'm announcing my immediate plans to address the issues of accessibility, affordability, and accountability raised by the commission. First: How do we make college more accessible? Action 1 under my plan is to build on this by expanding the effective principles of No Child Left Behind and holding high schools accountable for results. And we will continue efforts to align high-school standards with college work by increasing access to college-prep classes such as Advanced Placement.
Next, how do we make college more affordable? Higher education's escalating sticker price has many parents facing the tough choice -- whether to save for college or their own retirement. In the past five years alone, tuition at four-year colleges has skyrocketed by 40 percent. I want to know why, and I know other parents do, too. As the commission noted, the entire financial-aid system is in urgent need of reform. At the federal level, it's a maze of 60 Web sites, dozens of toll-free numbers, and 17 different programs. Just to give a comparison: The main federal student-aid form is longer and more complicated than the federal tax form.
The commission recommends Congress scrap the system and start over, with one that's more user-friendly and effective. In the meantime, Action 2 under my plan is for my department to streamline the process, cut the application time in half, and notify students of their aid eligibility, earlier than spring of their senior year, to help families plan.
The reality is no matter the costs, the wealthy can pay. But for low-income, mostly minority students, college is becoming virtually unattainable. ... We must increase need-based aid. We've worked with Congress to strengthen financial aid, and we've made progress. This includes making available four and a half billion dollars in scholarships for low-income students who take challenging courses in high school and study fields such as math and science. I look forward to teaming up with Congress again to improve the financial-aid process and help the students who need it most.
But more money isn't going to make a difference if states and institutions don't do their part to keep costs in line. ... Money's important. But we're going to keep chasing our tail on price until we realize that a good deal of the solution comes down to information. Like any other investment or enterprise, meaningful data is critical to better manage the system.
My daughter's college costs went up this year, for what? And this is not unique to me. For most families, this is one of the most expensive investments we make. Yet there is little to no information on why costs are so high and what we're getting in return.
Which brings me to my final point. How are we going to make college more accountable for results?
I, too, experienced the confusion and frustration many parents face with the college-selection process. I found it almost impossible to get the answers I needed. And I'm the secretary of education. Action 3 under my plan will work to pull together the same kind of privacy-protected student-level data we already have for K-through-12 students, and use that data to create a higher-education information system.
More than 40 states already have a system like this in place, but that's 40 islands unto themselves.
That kind of localized system may work when you're dealing with kindergarten through 12th grade, but it's not helpful when it comes to college and you're trying to compare options: in-state versus out of state, public versus private, community college versus four-year.
We want to work with Congress, states, and institutions to build a system that's more useful and widely available to every student.
The information would be closely protected. It would not identify individual students, nor be tied to personal information.
Armed with this information, we can redesign my department's existing college-search Web site and make it much more useful -- capable of addressing concerns such as, How much is this school really going to cost me? How long will it take to get my degree?
Believe it or not, we can't answer these basic questions. That's unacceptable. And I challenge states and universities to provide the information to make this system a reality.
Action 4 under my plan will provide matching funds to colleges, universities, and states that collect and publicly report student-learning outcomes.
Right now accreditation is the system we use to put a stamp of approval on higher-education quality. 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.
To that end, Action 5 under my plan will convene members of the accrediting community this November to move toward measures that place more emphasis on learning.
This is the beginning of a process of long-overdue reform. And let me be clear: At the end of it, we neither envision nor want a national system of higher education. On the contrary, one of the greatest assets of our system is its diversity -- something we must protect and preserve.
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. The commission's report is rightly titled -- "A Test of Leadership" -- and for the sake of our students and our future, this is one test we must not fail. ______________________________________________________________
'Time Is of the Essence' http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i07/07a02501.htm
Secretary Spellings says higher-education leaders must act fast to carry out the commission's recommendations
The secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, talked to The Chronicle's Kelly Field and Jeffrey Selingo last week, the day before she gave a speech regarding her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She elaborated on some of the changes she called for in her speech, including increased spending on need-based student aid, the creation of a database that would keep track of individual students' progress in college, and more accountability for colleges. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Q. How do you intend to get over the opposition to the unit-record database among some in Congress and in higher education?
A. The first is understanding what it is we're talking about. I intend to do a better job at really what that means. When you buy a ticket to a movie online, you're creating a unit record; when you make a dinner reservation on the Internet, you create a unit record; when you buy a book from Amazon, that's a unit record. We have millions of unit records all over our lives. That's the kind of thing we intend to do and should do for this product. I guess what I'm wondering is, Why are people opposed to that? Why aren't we for this kind of empowerment and information?
Q. Do you think the prototype that has been developed in your department's research division deals with peoples' privacy concerns?
A. Obviously, it's just a prototype. What we're proposing is that we ought to have a voluntary system that higher-ed institutions could participate in and get this kind of information. Lots of folks in the public systems that I'm aware of ... are crying for this ability to go to their state legislatures and make the case for resources because they know that their college of education is doing a great job. They are crippled by the lack of information as well. They want to be able to be more productive and more efficient and more customer-oriented, but without information it's hard for them to manage the enterprise. Just like in the old days of K to 12 education, when we said get out and do good. Well, without being precise about how well we were serving which kids in what subjects, your hands are tied behind your back.
Q. Have you talked to Congressional leaders about the fact that you're going to endorse this, and are they behind it?
A. Yes, I have talked with people about it. I am going to tell them as part of the story that really, except for the private colleges, the higher-education community is for this. The community colleges have endorsed this. The public colleges have endorsed this. As a customer of a private college [Ms. Spellings's daughter attends Davidson College, a private institution], I'm concerned that they fear this.
Q. You say in your speech that money is not the answer. But is more money at least part of the answer?
A. Just like in K-12 education, money has been part of the answer, but I'm saying that we're just chasing our tail on price unless we know for what. Why? Plus, what the commission recommends does speak to the need for cost containment in control of rising tuition. There's kind of a quid pro quo in the commission's recommendation as something for something, not something for nothing. I know that many in the higher-ed community would like more free money, and butt out. But that's not what the commission has recommended.
Q. In trying to explain why costs are increasing, colleges have cited things like salaries, utilities, etc. Do you buy that?
A. Those are the kinds of things you find in [the] housing [sector, too]. In housing, they have to buy a lot of gas; people employed in the housing industry have health-insurance premiums also. Why should [higher education] be up 375 percent over the period from 1982 to 2005, but medical care, which people are in uproar about, is up 223 percent? I think that [college costs] are outpacing every other indicator.
Q. For no good reason?
A. I'm not saying it's for no good reason. I'm just saying that I'd like to know the reasons. ... I have theories. Without any data, it's hard to really know if you're right or not.
Q. What are those theories?
A. I think there is a lack of productivity in the institutions. ... Institutions are not used on Fridays, and it's an enterprise that has a big, highly attractive, very adequate physical plant that is not used very much, or certainly has a lot of down time. That's part of it. Obviously, salaries are an issue. The need to attract talent is one. I don't know. Those are theories. I'd like a little information.
Q. A lot of people were surprised about how quickly you acted to implement these recommendations. Why did you move so quickly?
A. Time is of the essence. There is an urgency here. The academy is underestimating the American public -- the anxiety and the urgency about this. We have sold the dream of college. Kids believe they should go. They believe they must have it. They believe this is the key to their futures. And more and more, it's unattainable, with respect to affordability and preparedness.
If it's in fact the case that the world is flat and that we're going to be the world's innovator, and the world's leader, and that we're not going to compete with the world on price, then we'd better be the world's leader on innovation. And how are we going to do that? Education. There is an urgency here. If we don't address this, I'm afraid the world will pass us by. Are American institutions of higher education going to rise to the occasion and be lean fighting machines for American consumers or not? Because someone is. That's the way education and knowledge work. I believe they will. I believe they have it in them.
Q. Are you confident that colleges will be collaborative partners in getting these recommendations implemented?
A. I think a lot of people in higher education know this, get this, and are working on it. I think we can be their partner and help them do it better and faster. ... Organizations don't typically change themselves. I think they want and need help.
Q. We're about to go into a midterm election, into the last two years of this administration, so how are you going to ensure that this stays on the front burner?
A. I know I'm going to talk about it a lot because I know this is what my next-door neighbor is worried about, what your next-door neighbor is worried about. People are worried about higher education in America. They are worried about affordability, about attainability -- they understand what it means for their family and for our country -- and so I think the public is highly sensitive to this issue. ______________________________________________________________
Federal Government Is Urged to Direct More Resources to Need-Based Aid http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i07/07a02002.htm
WAYS & MEANS By MARTIN VAN DER WERF
A former U.S. deputy secretary of education says that all personal income-tax deductions and credits for higher-education costs should be repealed, and that the resulting $8-billion in savings should be redirected to Pell Grants.
It was one of several recommendations presented by William D. Hansen, who is now a partner in Chartwell Education Group, a consulting firm, at a conference on student loans last week, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Hansen also recommended that the federal government auction its direct-student-loan portfolio to the private sector, privatize the Perkins Loan program, and encourage charitable organizations to guarantee educational loans for students from low- and middle-income families so they would be eligible for lower interest rates.
Much of the conference was devoted to discussion of the growth in the private-loan industry. Five years ago, college students borrowed $5.8-billion in private loans. This year that total is expected to exceed $20-billion.
Robert M. Shireman, founder and executive director of the Project on Student Debt, an independent organization that wants to reduce dependence on student loans, said he was relieved to hear the talk about increasing Pell Grants. He said that some of the companies in the private-loan business have been acting irresponsibly.
"Some companies are encouraging borrowing not $6,000 or $7,000 but $50,000 a year for college," said Mr. Shireman. "It's hard to figure how much to borrow for college, but I can tell you that's way too much."
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