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Time is of the Essence

Secretary Spellings says higher-education leaders must act fast to carry out the commission's recommendations

The secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, talked to The Chronicle's Kelly Field and Jeffrey Selingo last week, the day before she gave a speech regarding her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She elaborated on some of the changes she called for in her speech, including increased spending on need-based student aid, the creation of a database that would keep track of individual students' progress in college, and more accountability for colleges. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Q. How do you intend to get over the opposition to the unit-record database among some in Congress and in higher education?

A. The first is understanding what it is we're talking about. I intend to do a better job at really what that means. When you buy a ticket to a movie online, you're creating a unit record; when you make a dinner reservation on the Internet, you create a unit record; when you buy a book from Amazon, that's a unit record. We have millions of unit records all over our lives. That's the kind of thing we intend to do and should do for this product. I guess what I'm wondering is, Why are people opposed to that? Why aren't we for this kind of empowerment and information?

Q. Do you think the prototype that has been developed in your department's research division deals with peoples' privacy concerns?

A. Obviously, it's just a prototype. What we're proposing is that we ought to have a voluntary system that higher-ed institutions could participate in and get this kind of information. Lots of folks in the public systems that I'm aware of ... are crying for this ability to go to their state legislatures and make the case for resources because they know that their college of education is doing a great job. They are crippled by the lack of information as well. They want to be able to be more productive and more efficient and more customer-oriented, but without information it's hard for them to manage the enterprise. Just like in the old days of K to 12 education, when we said get out and do good. Well, without being precise about how well we were serving which kids in what subjects, your hands are tied behind your back.

Q. Have you talked to Congressional leaders about the fact that you're going to endorse this, and are they behind it?

A. Yes, I have talked with people about it. I am going to tell them as part of the story that really, except for the private colleges, the higher-education community is for this. The community colleges have endorsed this. The public colleges have endorsed this. As a customer of a private college [Ms. Spellings's daughter attends Davidson College, a private institution], I'm concerned that they fear this.

Q. You say in your speech that money is not the answer. But is more money at least part of the answer?

A. Just like in K-12 education, money has been part of the answer, but I'm saying that we're just chasing our tail on price unless we know for what. Why? Plus, what the commission recommends does speak to the need for cost containment in control of rising tuition. There's kind of a quid pro quo in the commission's recommendation as something for something, not something for nothing. I know that many in the higher-ed community would like more free money, and butt out. But that's not what the commission has recommended.

Q. In trying to explain why costs are increasing, colleges have cited things like salaries, utilities, etc. Do you buy that?

A. Those are the kinds of things you find in [the] housing [sector, too]. In housing, they have to buy a lot of gas; people employed in the housing industry have health-insurance premiums also. Why should [higher education] be up 375 percent over the period from 1982 to 2005, but medical care, which people are in uproar about, is up 223 percent? I think that [college costs] are outpacing every other indicator.

Q. For no good reason?

A. I'm not saying it's for no good reason. I'm just saying that I'd like to know the reasons. ... I have theories. Without any data, it's hard to really know if you're right or not.

Q. What are those theories?

A. I think there is a lack of productivity in the institutions. ... Institutions are not used on Fridays, and it's an enterprise that has a big, highly attractive, very adequate physical plant that is not used very much, or certainly has a lot of down time. That's part of it. Obviously, salaries are an issue. The need to attract talent is one. I don't know. Those are theories. I'd like a little information.

Q. A lot of people were surprised about how quickly you acted to implement these recommendations. Why did you move so quickly?

A. Time is of the essence. There is an urgency here. The academy is underestimating the American public — the anxiety and the urgency about this. We have sold the dream of college. Kids believe they should go. They believe they must have it. They believe this is the key to their futures. And more and more, it's unattainable, with respect to affordability and preparedness.

If it's in fact the case that the world is flat and that we're going to be the world's innovator, and the world's leader, and that we're not going to compete with the world on price, then we'd better be the world's leader on innovation. And how are we going to do that? Education. There is an urgency here. If we don't address this, I'm afraid the world will pass us by. Are American institutions of higher education going to rise to the occasion and be lean fighting machines for American consumers or not? Because someone is. That's the way education and knowledge work. I believe they will. I believe they have it in them.

Q. Are you confident that colleges will be collaborative partners in getting these recommendations implemented?

A. I think a lot of people in higher education know this, get this, and are working on it. I think we can be their partner and help them do it better and faster. ... Organizations don't typically change themselves. I think they want and need help.

Q. We're about to go into a midterm election, into the last two years of this administration, so how are you going to ensure that this stays on the front burner?

A. I know I'm going to talk about it a lot because I know this is what my next-door neighbor is worried about, what your next-door neighbor is worried about. People are worried about higher education in America. They are worried about affordability, about attainability — they understand what it means for their family and for our country — and so I think the public is highly sensitive to this issue.
Section: Government & Politics
Volume 53, Issue 7, Page A25