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Bush Administration’s New Vision for Higher Education Raises Commitment Questions

Bush Administration’s New Vision for Higher Education Raises Commitment Questions
By Charles Dervarics

News Analysis
Two issues are already front and center when debating U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ new vision for American higher education: the depth of the Bush administration’s commitment to increased financial aid and the privacy concerns inherent in a proposed federal database of student information.

Advocacy groups and lawmakers are zeroing in quickly on the two hot-button issues the secretary outlined in an address to the National Press Club late last month. Expanding financial aid is not a given in the current budget climate, and the federal database threatens to pit reformers against  conservatives with privacy concerns.

In a speech following the release of “A Test of Leadership,” the final report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Spellings called for more need-based financial aid but did not provide specifics. She noted, however, that the nation’s higher education system is often “self-satisfied and unduly expensive.”

According to some officials, one early sign of the administration’s commitment to financial aid is the upcoming budget discussions for fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

“Step one of her plan should be to convince the president to immediately increase the Pell Grant to $5,100, as he has promised to do repeatedly,” says U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

However, President Bush has proposed a Pell Grant freeze for fiscal year 2007, and the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, while encouraging, is only recommending a $100 increase in its budget blueprint for next year.

The commission’s report recommends that Congress raise the average grant enough to cover 70 percent of the average tuition at a public four-year university. Currently, the $4,050 grant covers only 44 percent of costs.

The secretary’s speech only mentioned a “generic commitment” to Pell Grants, says Dr. David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, adding that a major Pell increase was “conspicuous by its absence.”

The future of other student aid programs also is unclear. Spellings cited the need to reform the entire aid system, “which by every implication means the elimination of some student aid programs,” Warren says.
While Spellings’ speech may have been short on specifics, she clearly made a case for more need-based financial aid assistance. “For low-income and many minority students, college is becoming virtually unattainable,” she said, adding that President Bush also will push for more Pell Grant spending.

The other central point of Spellings’ speech, the national student database, is expected to generate a good deal of controversy and debate in the coming months. The Education Department proposed a similar database in 2004, with students identified by Social Security Numbers. But this met with a stern rebuke from privacy advocates in Congress, and the department now envisions a system based on identification numbers developed specifically for the database.

During the speech, Spellings said student-level data would provide the public with vital information to evaluate postsecondary institutions and examine how much students learn in college.

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

To promote this goal, the secretary proposed a series of matching funds to colleges and universities that collect and report data on student-learning outcomes.

But the plan faces an uncertain future, particularly due to opposition from privacy advocates and private colleges and universities. The database also may result in increased costs for colleges and universities.

“Information for consumers is a good thing,” says U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “But American higher education does not need a barrage of new regulations imposing new costs so someone in Washington can try to figure out how to improve the Harvard classics department and Nashville Auto Diesel College.”

But others believe that Spellings struck a balanced tone in calling for more information but not necessarily more regulation.

“It would be an enormous mistake to measure each institution by the same yardstick,” says Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher, president of Massachusetts’ Wheaton College. “Research universities, community colleges, public institutions and private liberal arts colleges have different missions and serve different populations.”

Spellings maintained that the department’s approach would provide basic student information without further regulating colleges and universities. “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.”

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