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Spellings Backs Accountability in Higher Education

By Vaishali Honawar — February 23, 2005 6 min read
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Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings called on colleges last week to use the No Child Left Behind Act as a model for measuring the performance of higher education institutions and reducing the minority achievement gap.

“One of our biggest challenges is a lack of compatible and comprehensive measurements—the kind of information people have come to expect from K-12 schools,” Ms. Spellings said in a Feb. 14 address here to the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, a major group representing higher education. “Parents see a mosaic of fine higher ed institutions, but find it difficult to piece the puzzle together.”

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tells the annual meeting of the American Council of Education that she just went through the college application process with one of her daughters.

The secretary’s comments came about a week after President Bush unveiled a fiscal 2006 federal budget proposal that would increase the maximum Pell Grant amount and erase a $4.3 billion shortfall in the program that helps low-income families send their children to college.

But to do so, the president is asking Congress to eliminate other programs that serve poor students, including some that supporters say have helped millions of young people move on to college.

Ms. Spellings, who said she had just gone through the college application and selection process with her daughter, compared her experience to that of millions of parents who face the same challenges every year.

She highlighted the additional funding for Pell Grants, saying “we owe it to parents and students to make college as affordable as possible.”

“This is truly a reform budget when it comes to student loans,” she said, referring to the president’s decision to increase the amount of low-interest money that students can borrow in the federal loan program.

Cuts Face Opposition

But she steered her speech clear of the cuts in the budget that many say will make it harder for low-income students to get to college: To help pay for the proposed $19 billion increase for the Pell Grant program over the next 10 years, Mr. Bush has proposed eliminating the Perkins Loan Program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans to students with deep financial need. The budget also asks colleges to return the federal funds they hold under this program to make new loans to students from low- and middle-income families.

The budget would also cut the Upward Bound, Talent Search, and GEAR UP programs that advocates say provide academic and personal support services to more than 700,000 secondary school students a year. Upward Bound and Talent Search are among the federal TRIO programs for disadvantaged students, and GEAR UP helps middle school students from poor families.

Members of the higher education community have promised to fight to save those programs, and some in Congress appear sympathetic.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a speech to the ACE meeting that finding the money to pay for the proposed Pell Grant increase would be “quite a challenge.”

He also acknowledged the popularity of some of the programs President Bush has proposed cutting and indicated that Congress might not be willing to go along.

“There is quite a bit of support for Perkins, and politically I don’t know how viable it is to get rid of Perkins and bring the money to Washington,” Mr. Boehner said.

He also expressed concern over cutting the Upward Bound, Talent Search, and GEAR UP programs, but pointed out that in the administration’s opinion, the programs had not been sufficiently successful.

“Now that’s their opinion, and they’re entitled to it,” Mr. Boehner said. “But we’ll have a great big debate about the veracity of that.”

The president’s budget proposal has raised deep concerns among leaders in higher education. Susan Trebach, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Council for Opportunity in Education, said she hoped Congress would think long and hard before eliminating Upward Bound, Talent Search, and GEAR UP.

“Everyone is scratching their heads, saying how do we get low-income students into college, and what does the president do?” she said. “He moves to eliminate the programs that really help students. … Does it make sense that standardized testing or even raising standards at schools is an adequate substitute for students getting one-on-one mentoring?”

‘Mixed Bag’ Budget

The president’s budget seeks to add $100 to the maximum Pell Grant amount over each of the next five years, topping out at $4,550 in 2010.

Democrats, Republicans, and education advocacy groups agree that there is a need to increase the maximum Pell Grant, which has been frozen for the past three years at $4,050, even as the program has dropped into a $4.3 billion deficit.

“In fact, we would like it to be higher,” said Gabriella Gomez, an assistant director who deals with higher education issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Gomez said she was concerned that Mr. Bush hopes to achieve the Pell Grant increase through cuts to other programs, such as the Perkins Loan Program, which, she said, helps middle-income students.

Jon S. Whitmore, the president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said that cutting the Perkins Loan Program could make access to college difficult “for those that have the greatest need.”

Mr. Whitmore said that the 28,500-student university generally has middle-class and first-generation college students, and that if Congress goes along with the president’s proposals, it will become particularly hard for those students to attend college.

“I believe the federal government needs to continue its responsibility of trying to provide financial aid to students across the country,” he said in an interview.

A Job for Congress

Representatives of education groups say they are hopeful that Congress will soften the blow as it takes up Mr. Bush’s budget.

“This is just the beginning,” said Bill Harvey, a vice president of the ACE. “We will have an opportunity to have some discussions with folks on [Capitol] Hill, and what will ultimately get enacted will look very different from the president’s proposal.”

Rep. Boehner told the ACE meeting that Congress this year plans to pass the overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“We have an opportunity to enact positive reforms throughout the reauthorization and find common ground on contentious issues,” he said.

He and other Republicans on the House education committee introduced a bill this month to renew the HEA that is similar to one they introduced last year.

But they are already hitting speed bumps. For instance, the bill includes a controversial provision that would prevent borrowers wanting to refinance their federal student loans from locking in a low, fixed interest rate. Democrats oppose the measure as one that would make college even more expensive for students.

Ms. Spellings, in her speech to ACE, held up the No Child Left Behind Act as a model for higher education.

“Even though we federally fund less than one-tenth of [K-12 education]—compared to about one-third of higher education—we’ve leveraged our investment,” she said.

But education advocates called the proposal for an accountability plan for colleges a bad idea.

“It is like taking the basic idea of No Child Left Behind, about having some sort of accountability for money, and dumping it on higher education,” said Jodi Fingland, also an assistant director of the AFT. She said that the federal government would have a tough time defining what “success” is for colleges and universities.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as Spellings Backs Accountability in Higher Education

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