Spellings Commission: A Test of Leadership

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February 5, 2007

Spellings Commission: A Test of Leadership

I just returned home from Washington D.C. where I attended the annual president’s meeting of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. I am always struck by the self-importance that emanates from the Beltway. Don’t get me wrong, it is the seat of power for the most powerful country in the world and those of us who do not live there should not underestimate the impact it has on our daily lives. On the other hand there is a breathlessness about every decision that is made that probably overestimates how much the rest of us care. Maybe we should be paying more attention.

There is currently restlessness in the public and in Washington about higher education. The concerns revolve around the long-time issues of affordability, accessibility, and accountability. To be sure, they are legitimate concerns and I do not personally know any university presidents who are not attune to these issues. Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education, was invited to speak to our group but as is often the case, she was unable to come because of other pressing matters. She sent an acting assistant secretary in her place. His presentation was predictably a rehash of Secretary Spelling’s comments to the National Press Club regarding the “Spellings Commission Report”. A couple of years ago, the secretary went through the process of helping her daughter select a college. You would think from her reaction she was the first to ever engage in this process. She was frustrated that she could not directly compare one higher education institution to another and that some information was not “transparent” enough. Her position allowed her to appoint a commission headed by Charles Miller, a crony from her home state of Texas, to look into the perceived problems of higher education in America. The result was a report centered on the issues of affordability, accessibility and accountability. The Secretary hopes to use the full power of her office to bring higher education in line with such industries as health care and prescription drugs. I am not kidding. That is what the acting assistant secretary used as an example!

I have read the commission’s report twice. To be fair, it gets some things right. The federal loan system is a mess. I already knew that. I borrowed money for my children to attend universities, and I filled out all the forms just like everyone else. It can be confusing, aggravating, and infuriating. The system needs to be simplified.

The government needs to make more funds available for higher education for a broader economic group. The funding gap has increased, particularly squeezing the middle class. Anyone who gains admission to college should be able to attend. One important caveat is they might not be able to attend their first choice, but they should be able to attend. One of our CCCU presidents asked the acting assistant secretary if he personally knew of a student who could not attend college because of finances. He had to think before he finally said yes, but he passed when asked to give the person’s name.

The report also correctly identified that students are ill-prepared for college work and it is costing too much for remedial education. I am not sure how that is the fault of higher education, but it is a serious problem. I served for two years as an advisor to the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education in Missouri (academics were not allowed to be members, just advisors). In the end, almost all the recommendations pointed to needed improvements at the elementary and secondary levels.

When the Commission’s report turned to accountability, it strayed way off base, in my opinion. One of the geniuses of higher education is this country is its diversity. Unlike other countries a student has multiple choices. There are inexpensive community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, state teaching colleges, major research universities, and Ivy League schools. Some schools, like ours, have a faith heritage and have always been allowed to exercise that difference.

Secretary Spellings seems to want a one-size-fits-all policy. I had the last question for the acting assistant secretary and this is what I said, “We represent the largest number of institutions in this country, about 2,400, that are small liberal arts colleges, many with a Christian heritage and mission. Most of us accept no direct state or federal aid and yet we are among the most regulated of industries. We have auditors, accreditors, and government regulators who monitor many aspects of our operations. We hire full-time people to fill out all the reports we have to file. Even our salaries are public record. Mr. Acting Assistant Secretary, what data is it exactly that we are not providing? How can we be more transparent?” He answered something about financial aid but the consensus was that it had nothing to do with my question.

Granted, we educators have done a poor job of explaining ourselves and we probably don’t make it easy for someone to find information without asking. We have raised tuition to fund our operations without explaining that hardly anyone pays more than 55-60% of the cost or that many of our institutions provide millions in institutional aid. The Spellings people love to use the car analogy. You can look at the sticker and tell exactly what you are getting. Have they bought cars lately? Let’s carry that a bit further. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I am going to write down a figure here for which I can let you drive this diploma off the lot.” Mr. & Mrs. Smith open the paper and gasp. Then they make a counter offer to which the admissions counselor says, “I’ll have to take this to my manager to see if he will accept it.” You get the idea. We are not selling cars. Education is the backbone of the democratic process and for it to continue working, government should build on the strengths and not try to mandate shallow solutions for the weaknesses. At most of our institutions we are not overpaying faculty, building luxurious facilities or wasting money as the Commission’s report implies.

The Secretary can move ahead with leverage in two major areas. She can pressure the accreditors. One of our presidents said that his regional accrediting body would make visits every two years instead of the standard ten. I hope he was wrong. We just finished two years of preparation for our ten-year visit. This is an example of how more regulation will drive up costs by requiring us to hire more people and consultants just to get more frequent reports done. Similarly the Secretary can add more data for an already detailed annual report (IPEDS) that every institution must fill out every year so that its students can receive Title IV funds. Again, more reporting, more staff, more expense.

My hope is that over the next couple of years the higher education associations working with the Secretary can find constructive ways to work together to address these issues. More regulation is not the answer.