Spellings Lays Out 'Action Plan' for Colleges (more)

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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


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

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

"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

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.

Unit-Record Redux

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

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."

Advance Respsonse

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."


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'

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

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

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

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

That must change. Whether students are learning is not a yes-or-no

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'

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

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

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


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

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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