Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education
AEI Newsletter

In September 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, also known as the Spellings Commission, published its report on issues facing U.S. colleges and universities today. Speakers at a March 13 AEI conference assessed the commission’s findings and recommendations. In her keynote speech, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who established the commission in 2005, offered a rationale for the commission’s recommendations and explained the Department of Education’s role in implementing them.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Secretary of Education
Margaret Spellings
America’s universities are losing their once-preeminent position in the world, Secretary Spellings said. Too many students are not graduating, costs are too high, and the financial aid system is too complex. She said the commission addressed “shortcomings in accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality,” sending a “tough message” to the higher education establishment.

Secretary Spellings underscored the urgency of reform in higher education: “Nearly all of our fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education.” With only 66 percent of undergraduates completing a baccalaureate in six years, she said, American universities are falling behind the rest of the world. She also emphasized racial and income gaps in college access and graduation rates, commenting that “we are underserving our minority populations in terms of access and affordability.”

Secretary Spellings also identified administration policies to deal with these challenges. For example, President George W. Bush has called for increasing the monetary amount of individual Pell Grants. In an initiative to enhance accountability, the Education Department is funding a pilot program to help states collect and standardize higher education data. The week after the AEI conference, she convened a summit to discuss further the commission’s recommendations.

During the first panel discussion, Robert Zemsky of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, a Spellings Commission member and critic of the report, argued that the commission merely tinkered at the edges and that higher education needs a “dislodging event” to stimulate reform. Judith Eaton of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation called the commission’s report a “significant federal challenge to higher education and accreditation.” Former deputy secretary of education Eugene Hickok urged reformers to take a step back and look at the purpose of higher education. “Too many young people in their senior year of college don’t have a higher education,” he said.

Speaking on the finances of higher education, Ronald Ehrenberg of Cornell University said that as private endowments soar, colleges must be “held accountable for the tax benefits they enjoy.” As for the funding of public colleges and universities, state support has been flat in recent years, requiring tuition increases. AEI’s Richard Vedder, a Spellings Commission member and author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (AEI Press, 2004), said that more public spending will not contribute to higher graduation rates. Sandy Baum of the College Board pointed to the successes of the financial aid system and advocated strengthening it to assure low-income students that “if [they] do well, the money will be there.” AEI’s Charles Murray provocatively claimed that too many intellectually incapable people go to college today, placing a “false premium” on the value of a college degree.

The final panel featured discussion of subjects omitted by the commission’s report. Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, urged universities to embrace their “moral obligation” to educate students about America’s democratic tradition. Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein spoke about the rigid job search and tenure processes that instill a “conformity culture” in faculties. Edward Cox, a trustee of the State University of New York, related his personal experiences in building accountability in the higher education system.

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