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Spellings: More Financial Aid, Accountability In Store For Higher Ed


U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Tuesday called for more need-based financial aid as part of wide-ranging higher education reforms that would include new accountability measures and data collection on student and college performance.

The higher education system today is often “self-satisfied and unduly expensive. There is an urgent need for change in America’s higher education system,” the secretary said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The speech comes a week after the Commission on the Future of Higher Education released “A Test of Leadership,” the panel’s final report on recommended higher education reforms.

While Spellings did not specify how to increase financial aid, she said more need-based assistance is essential to increase access to higher education. “For low-income and many minority students, college is becoming virtually unattainable,” she said.

The increase in need-based aid may come as a result of restructuring and simplifying the federal aid system. Spellings identified 17 federal aid programs, each with their own rules, and criticized a cumbersome federal application process that is “longer and more complicated than the federal tax form.”

The secretary said President Bush would push for more Pell Grant spending, a move that would require congressional approval. But the Education Department will begin work immediately on other issues, including a speedier process to inform students about their financial aid eligibility. Spellings pledged to cut the notification time in half, with students getting information before the spring of their senior year of high school.

“The entire financial aid system is in dire need of reform,” she said.

But with increased investment must come more accountability. Spellings called for more information on college student performance as part of increased accountability for higher education institutions.

“Over the years, we’ve invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and just hoped for the best. We deserve better,” she said.

About 40 states have some type of student information system, but they are not connected in any meaningful way. More colleges must collect and report data on student outcomes, said Spellings, adding that colleges should be judged “not by their reputation, but by their performance.”

To promote this goal, she proposed a series of matching funds that institutions could tap to offset the cost of collecting and reporting data on student learning outcomes.

Spellings also plans to convene a forum on accreditation in November to examine better ways to assess higher education performance. The current accreditation system asks how many books are in a college library, she said, but does not measure how much students are learning in college.

“Believe it or not, we can’t answer the most critical and basic questions about student performance and learning at colleges, and that’s unacceptable,” she said. “Information will hold schools accountable.”

Spellings’ proposals were met with a mix of praise and criticism. U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., senior Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, praised the secretary for addressing the high cost of college. But he said the Bush administration and the national commission both failed to address a “dysfunctional” student loan system that provides excessively high subsidies to financial institutions.

“That system squanders billions each year to provide corporate welfare to big lenders, rather than serving the best interests of our students,” Kennedy said. 

Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and past chair of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said colleges should be held accountable for student learning, but cautioned against one standard measurement.

“It would be an enormous mistake to measure each institution by the same yardstick. Research universities, community colleges, public institutions and private liberal arts colleges have different missions and serve different populations. Each type of institution should be judged by the extent to which it adds value to students’ lives.”

To review the panel’s recommendations, the Education Department this fall will hold hearings and work sessions on possible changes to federal rules and regulations. But Spellings has also said she plans to bring together business and higher education leaders next spring to explore other recommendations from the commission.

Prior to the secretary’s speech, a group of higher education associations offered their own prescription to help cure problems in postsecondary education. Led by the American Council on Education, the group released a blueprint that calls for a large increase in need-based aid, better alignment of high school and college curricula and increased preparation for teachers.

— By Charles Dervarics

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