Spellings outlines higher ed. plan

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings set forth a multi-pronged plan for higher education yesterday, calling for the creation of a database to track students’ academic progress, an increase in spending on need-based student aid and increased accountability for colleges.

The most controversial of the changes — and one met with skepticism by Yale officials — is the creation of a Unit Record Database that would create student identification numbers anonymously linking students to their transcripts. Spellings also stressed the need for a greater amount of need-based aid, emphasizing the rising cost of college tuitions, and pushed for stronger accountability testing to high schools, proposing that Congress offer matching funds to universities and colleges that collect and make public information about student “learning outcomes.”

Yale Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said he supports the decision to spotlight the shortcomings of financial aid.

“The federal financial aid system has not kept pace with the actual costs of higher education and indeed is in need of some revision,” he said.

But Storlazzi said he believes the Unit Record Data requirement would be “an administrative burden” and that it raises some questions about how much information the government should have.

“I do feel that it would not be proper for the federal government to have so much information on students,” he said. “The implication is that we in the higher education community are doing something wrong that needs to be monitored and corrected as necessary.

Karl Mayer, a sociology professor at Yale, said he believes the motives behind the database are well-founded.

“Colleges should have an interest in how well their students are doing, even if they drop out and switch to other places,” he said in an e-mail. “And on a state and national level, we would like to know how well the tertiary system works. There are issues of privacy, but they can be solved.”

Spellings’ speech follows the Secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report last week, which called for dramatic changes to higher education at the government level.

“There is an urgency here,” Spellings said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The academy is underestimating the American public — the anxiety and urgency about this. We have sold the dream of college … and more and more, it’s unattainable.”

Spellings said she believes collecting information about college students is fair, given that the government already collects information about children at the elementary and secondary school levels through the No Child Left Behind Act.

“We have empowered our system with that information, and we have empowered our parents with that information, and it’s serving kids better,” she said in the Chronicle interview. “So I guess I’m wondering, as the Secretary of Education, if that’s good enough for third graders, why shouldn’t we have that kind of understanding about [higher education]?”

But Mayer said he is hesitant to endorse Spellings’ focus on accountability.

“Even for schools, the testing connected to the No Child Left Behind program is far from being not problematic, although achievements in schools are much easier to measure than educational outcomes of colleges,” he wrote. “I would also resent it as an encroachment of the federal government in areas which should either be regulated to the states for public colleges and universities and should be up to self-regulation for private schools.”

At the end of August, Spellings announced that the Department of Education would hold a series of regional public hearings, which will start this month, to talk about how the department might implement the recommendations of the commission.

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