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Business and Policy Areas
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Spellings Commission Completes Work

October 4, 2006

The Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed a year ago by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, issued its final report last week. "A Test of Leadership:  Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education" lays out a number of findings and recommendations in the areas of access, cost and affordability, financial aid, learning, transparency and accountability, and innovation. Among its more controversial recommendations were support for a student-level database to track student progress through higher education and calls for adoption of serious accountability measures focused on outcomes, not inputs. The commission also called for increased federal grant aid for students and a complete overhaul of the federal student-aid programs.

Of particular interest to business officers, the commission recommended that "policymakers and higher education leaders should develop, at the institutional level, new and innovative means to control costs, improve productivity, and increase the supply of higher education." The specific points outlined under this recommendation include:

  • improve information about costs and prices;
  • improve institutional cost management through the development of new performance benchmarks designed to measure and improve productivity and efficiency;
  • lower per-student costs by reducing barriers for transfer students;
  • provide state financial incentives for institutions that foster access, improve productivity, and cut costs;
  • reduce regulatory and accreditation barriers to new models that may reduce costs; and 
  • reduce the regulatory burden on institutions at the state and federal level, and improve compliance materials to help institutions keep up with new requirements.

Spellings quickly announced an initial plan of action that focuses on improving high school preparation, simplification of the application process for federal student aid, and improved transparency and accountability. One plan calls for matching funds for colleges that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes. She plans to convene a meeting in November with accreditors to urge them to move toward performance measures.

One member of the commission, American Council on Education President David Ward, did not sign on to the final report. He explained his concerns:

However, as I reviewed the final draft report in its entirety, I made the decision that I could not sign it as a commissioner nor fully support it. Despite improvements with each successive draft, there remained several issues of serious concern to me—particularly as I look ahead to the challenges of implementing the report’s recommendations, with which I would inevitably be directly involved. For example, many of the problems cited in the report are the result of multiple factors but they were sometimes attributed entirely to the limitations of higher education. The recommendations as a whole also fail to recognize the diversity of missions within higher education and the need to be cautious about policies and standards based on a one-size-fits-all approach. Beyond my disagreement over some recommendations, it was in the end my belief that our solutions should be built upon the strengths of higher education rather than on inferences that could project a false sense of crisis.

 ACE and five other presidential associations laid out their vision of the next steps in a letter to their members entitled,  Addressing the Challenges Facing American Undergraduate Education.