Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Secretary Spellings’ report gets mixed review

For DU and some other colleges and universities, a recent Department of Education report calling for higher-ed reforms is not entirely good news. 

Moving quickly to implement the recommendations of a federal higher education commission, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued the report in September and is holding hearings this fall. She has called for streamlining financial aid, extending provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act to colleges and universities, and establishing a system to track student performance and learning. 

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), which represents the University of Denver and other private institutions, supports many of the commission’s recommendations, including the need for better access, additional science and engineering resources, federal and state deregulation of higher education and better international student admission policies. 

But NAICU adamantly opposes the creation of a student-tracking system and blasts the commission for not endorsing increases in Pell Grant funding. 

NAICU President David Warren worries that reforming the federal financial aid system could mean eliminating some student-aid programs. And he questions the ability of the federal government to protect the privacy of individual students and their families through a national student record system. 

“Such a national system for tracking students from high school through college and into the workplace would shift the control of those records from the student to the federal government,” he says. 

Other policy experts, including DU education Professor and Associate Dean Cheryl Lovell, disagree. 

Lovell, who has been involved in higher education policy for 25 years, is a member of the National Center for Student Success and Accountability, a group of educators formed to respond to the Spellings commission recommendations. 

She’s a longtime advocate for the kind of data collection system the commission recommends because, she says, it’s a way to demonstrate the quality she sees as inherent in the American higher education system. As long as the risks to privacy can be minimized, Lovell says the information and insight to be gained from such a system outweighs the risks.

Lovell is critical, however, of Spellings’ proposal to extend elements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The mostly untested, “one-size-fits-all” approach to K-12 education will not work, she says, in the complex world of higher education, where students in community colleges, public institutions and private universities have very different needs and institutions produce very different outcomes. 

Like Warren, Lovell also worries about the downward trend in higher education funding. She calls it “disingenuous” of Spellings to condemn colleges for their lack of affordability while decreases in federal funding shift the burden from taxpayers to students and their families. The public good gained from higher education, including the economic and social benefits of a well-educated workforce, is more important than the private gains benefiting individual graduates, Lovell says. 

While Lovell sees the commission’s report as a good starting point for a long overdue national dialogue on higher education, she wonders why the Bush administration suddenly woke up to the so called crisis after doing little during its first six years other than de-funding public higher education.

“It’s only a crisis if you haven’t been paying attention,” Lovell says. 

Spellings has yet to recommend legislation or funding levels for next year, but she began pushing to implement some of the commission’s finding on Sept. 26, a week after the commission’s final report was released. 

This article originally appeared in The Source, November 2006.

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