Saying that American higher education had slipped behind its global competition, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Tuesday laid out her plans for an overhaul, including creating a federal database to track students' academic progress and revamping the financial aid system.
Spellings, responding to a national commission report that called for a broad shake-up of higher education, also urged the nation's nearly 4,000 colleges and universities to cut costs and do a better job of monitoring -- and proving -- just what they give their students. "Our universities are known as the best in the world, and a lot of people will tell you things are going just fine," Spellings said in a Washington speech that was broadcast over the Internet. "But when 90% of the fastest-growing jobs require post-secondary education, are we satisfied with just fine?"
She said it was not satisfactory, for instance, that the rise in college tuition in recent years has outpaced the rate of inflation, that fewer and fewer students finish their undergraduate degrees in four or even six years, and that growing numbers of students graduate with significant debt. "None of that seems fine to me," Spellings said.
She said she wanted to increase students' access to college by improving their academic preparation during high school and by aligning high school standards with college coursework. That would come, she said, by working with Congress to extend the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law into high schools, an idea Congress has greeted coolly. Spellings also said she would work with Congress to increase the amount of federal financial aid available for needy students, although she stopped short of endorsing a specific increase in the amount of the Pell Grant, the basic building block of federal aid for low-income students.
The much-anticipated address came in response to a final report submitted last week by a Spellings-appointed panel, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The report criticized rising tuition costs and what it said were signs of "unwarranted complacency" on some college campuses.
Spellings established the panel of higher education and business leaders a year ago and asked it to examine issues of access, affordability and accountability, to determine whether U.S. colleges were producing students capable of competing in the global economy. In too many areas, its final report said, "Americans just aren't getting the education that they need -- and that they deserve."
The report proposed that colleges and universities regularly test their students to learn whether schools are meeting their goals and promises. Those results would then form part of a national database that would help students and their parents learn about and choose colleges.
President Bush issued a statement praising the report, while higher education advocates and college leaders, some of whom had expressed concern about the commission's criticisms, expressed a measure of relief at Spellings' recommendations.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, a Washington group that advocates for the nation's colleges, said that he continued to have some reservations but that he was pleased that Spellings appeared willing to work with the higher education community. "She talked a great deal about meetings and dialogue today, and I think that's helpful," said Ward, a member of the panel. He was the only one of 19 commissioners not to endorse its final report.
Others, including California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed, were enthusiastic. "What this does is send a much-needed wake-up call to higher education in this country," Reed said. "It's a good report, something all of us can work from."
In Spellings' comments and in the commission report, the Cal State system was praised for several innovations, including a program that tests 11th-grade students for college-readiness in English and math. But Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the report because it did not address shortages in academic staffing or state funding for higher education. It "deserves a grade of 'incomplete,' " he said in a statement.
In her speech, Spellings, who has a college-age daughter, suggested that nearly everything about a college education -- including researching and selecting a school and trying to pay for it -- was now too difficult for students and their parents. People buying cars, she said, could get more relevant information than people picking a college. "I, too, experienced the confusion and frustration many parents face with the college selection process," she said. "I found it almost impossible to get my questions answered, and I'm the secretary of Education."
Spellings said much of her proposed "action plan" would require the help of Congress, state governments, as well as colleges and universities. Part of her proposal, she said, was a plan to restructure the federal financial aid system, which she described as a maze of competing programs and overlapping, confusing websites. In its report, the commission recommended scrapping the system and starting over.
Details about the most controversial part of Spellings' plan, the creation of a database that would track students' performance, were sketchy Tuesday. She said that much had yet to be worked out but emphasized that it would protect the privacy of students and would not include their names or other personal information.
Caption: PHOTO: STANDARDS: Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says "just fine" is not enough.; PHOTOGRAPHER: Lawrence Jackson Associated Press
Credit: Times Staff Writer