A history lesson about Margaret Spellings

She wants people to get to know her, so let's do that:

The U.S. Education Department certainly found this to be the case in 2004, when reviewers there wrote a scathing report about how the corporate bosses at the University of Phoenix pressure and intimidate their recruiters to put "asses in the classes," including those of unqualified students.

Meanwhile, a commission, appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, to critique higher education singled out for-profit colleges for praise, without acknowledging the serious charges that have been leveled against some of these companies.

This article was written in early 2007, and the formal complaints and lawsuits dealing with the University of Phoenix were already legion. But Margaret Spellings didn't just want to boost for-profit colleges, she wanted to radically alter the way the Federal government managed higher ed, and awarded tuition assistance:

When Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched the commission in September 2005, it was charged with developing a comprehensive strategy for postsecondary education that would make the most of national investment in higher ed. A series of shorter reports released earlier this year by Commission Chair Charles Miller made it clear that the commission's recommendations would require a major overhaul of financial aid programs and higher ed spending. The latest release is an early draft of the commission's final report, a version which still lacks conclusions but has already drawn public opposition from higher ed groups and several commission members.

Several higher education groups have objected to the tone and substance of the report. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (ACE) and a member of the commission, expressed doubt that the group could create a document that accurately and fairly summarized the state of higher education and its challenges in light of the existing draft.

"I believe it [the draft] is seriously flawed and needs significant revision. I am particularly unhappy with the tone and the hostile, almost confrontational way it approaches higher education. Some of the recommendations are also deeply troubling," Ward wrote on the ACE website.

Key recommendations from the report include:

Holding universities and colleges accountable for the success of the students they admit and improving data collection of student persistence in order to allow higher education consumers to evaluate institutional success;

Consolidating the 17 federal financial aid and tax benefits programs for students and eliminating the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student aid) by linking the financial aid application process to the federal tax system;

Encouraging states to redirect assistance to individual students instead of colleges and universities;

Strengthening competitors to traditional four-year institutions, such as community colleges and online university programs, by making it easier to transfer credits

Bolding mine. Those who have followed education issues here in NC will recognize a few of these items, such as giving the money to students to spend as they or their parents see fit (think vouchers), and the "boosting competition" from private sector, for-profit education entities. And the following "assessment" excerpted from the first draft of the report is both revealing and inaccurate:

In this consumer-driven environment, growing numbers of students care little about the distinctions that preoccupy the academic establishment, from whether a college has forprofit or nonprofit status to whether its classes are offered online or in brick-and-mortar buildings. Instead, they care – as we do – about results.

Of course students and their parents care about the type of college chosen, and to posit that online and brick-and-mortar colleges are viewed the same is mind-boggling in its cluelessness. But that's what Margaret Spellings wanted them to include in their report. Here's more:

Most public discussions of college affordability are framed solely in terms of the financial strain faced by students and families, which is appropriate and understandable in an era when for 25 years average tuition and fees have increased faster than inflation, per capita personal income, consumer prices, and even health insurance. Yet because students and families only pay a portion of the actual cost of higher education, affordability is also an important public policy concern for those who are asked to fund colleges and universities, notably federal and state policymakers, but also private donors.

In our view, affordability is directly affected by the failure of post-secondary institutions to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity. That abdication of responsibility can, in turn, can be traced to a system of third-party payments – including state appropriations and private donations, as well as federal student aid – that gives college and universities little incentive to control costs and find innovative ways to teach students. On the contrary, for many institutions the path to prestige involves spending more money, whether on costly laboratories or lavish student dorms, an academic arms race that often doesn’t serve the public interest.

Those two paragraphs summarize the real danger a Margaret Spellings' tenure represents; a deeply-held belief that our public universities need to be radically revamped. In order to do that, the various funding mechanisms need to be brought under a much stricter control, so the "gatekeepers" can determine what is or is not an "efficient" disposition of resources. We're not just talking about state (taxpayer) funding, either. Private donations are listed above as one of the barriers to "incentives to control costs," and these will no doubt be viewed with skepticism in the near future.



The NC Constitution



Section 1. Education encouraged.

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.


Nowhere does it say "shall be profitable to free-market misfits."