WASHINGTON – The secretary of education's plan to reform the nation's higher education system has sparked debate among college officials and organizations that question the government's involvement in post-secondary learning.
Margaret Spellings announced her agenda Tuesday. It includes tracking student learning and making the results part of a public,online database to ensure colleges and universities fulfill their academic promises.
“No current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point – student performance and learning,” she said.
Spellings' plan to measure student learning would be difficult to apply to liberal arts students,whose education focuses on intellectual rather than occupational skills,said Christopher Nelson,president of St. John's College,a small liberal arts college in Annapolis,Md.,and Santa Fe,N.M.
St. John's approach to education is radically different from institutions whose programs cater to specific majors. Its undergraduate curriculum applies to all students,who read and discuss great books of Western tradition to acquire general knowledge.
“Science-based measurements take no account for the broad liberal education we are trying to achieve,” Nelson said during a panel discussion at the Cato Institute Wednesday. “Assessment must be left to the students,faculty and individual institutions.”
Charles Miller,chair of the Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education,said information on student learning would give colleges and universities incentive to reassess teaching methods and better equip students and families to choose a quality school.
“We need to know all we can know about these institutions,” Miller said. “People who are paying the money ought to know more about what they're getting for the money.”
Spellings appointed Miller's commission last year to analyze the higher education system and form a strategy for its improvement. She based her agenda on the group's recommendations after receiving them last week.
Critics say the part of the plan that would create a database of students' records could violate their privacy.
Spellings' press secretary,Katherine McLane,said colleges and universities would submit students' individual transcript information,which would then be sent to a third party.
“The system would encrypt data and send it to a trusted third party outside the Department of Education,” McLane said. “The third party would be entrusted with students' names and Social Security numbers,but would not be able to see transcript data.”
The third party would strip the data of personal information and assign new identification numbers for the students,she said,before returning the revised data to the department to post in its database.
Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute,a libertarian research organization,called the proposed database “massive new federal intervention” and said information on student learning was unnecessary.
“Why not use employers as proxies for assessing students' abilities?” said McCluskey,a policy analyst for CATO's Center of Education Freedom.
He said resources already exist to help families judge the quality of individual colleges and universities,pointing to U.S. News and World Report's “America's Best Colleges” annual guide as an example. He also decried any federal involvement in higher education – even in the form of financial aid,which Spellings proposed to increase.
Author Anya Kamenetz disagreed,saying the government ought to do more to help students afford a post-secondary education. Kamenetz interviewed dozens of students for her book,”Generation Debt,” and joined the panel to represent students' concerns about paying for college.
“It's hard for them to navigate the system,” Kamenetz said of the government's financial aid system,made up of 60 Web sites and 17 different programs. “People perceive the system to be unfair because of the way it's organized.”
Spellings' agenda includes streamlining the federal aid application process,but avoids the commission's recommendation to increase the value of need-based Pell Grants. It recommended raising the costs covered by the Pell from 48 percent to 70 percent over five years.
The Pell Grant's value has diminished mostly due to rising tuition costs. The College Board,the nonprofit association that administers the SAT and other college entrance exams,reported the maximum Pell Grant covered 42 percent of the cost of one year at a public,four-year institution in 2001-02,but dropped to 36 percent in 2004-05. The 2006 report will be released in October.
The secretary's decision to ignore the recommendation disappointed Nelson,who said more valuable Pell Grants would have relieved the strain on schools whose aid money for students comes largely from private donations.