Chapel Hill, N.C. — Eleven years after the publication of the Spellings Report on higher education, University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings on Tuesday reiterated its call for cost containment and financial aid reform and repeated her earlier push for measurement of college students' performance.
Spellings was U.S. education secretary under the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2005, she convened the Spellings Commission to make recommendations to improve the nation's higher education system.
The Spellings Report, published Sept. 26, 2006, recommended system-wide improvements in accessibility, affordability, accountability, quality and innovation. At a symposium Tuesday at UNC-Chapel Hill, Spellings said that more than a decade later, higher education has become less affordable, not more.
"For most families in the United States, the single most important fact about higher education, sadly, is that it’s simply not affordable," Spellings said in her keynote address. "Even at public institutions – and even in states with a deep commitment to affordability, like this one – most families can’t pay out-of-pocket for a year of higher education."
She noted that student loan debt now tops $1 trillion of the U.S. economy.
"We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle-class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market," she said.
The perception that college is not accessible, Spellings asserted, has helped fuel a growing skepticism on the political right about the value of higher education, which she says "has become the preferred venue for some of the sharpest partisans and some of the most strident culture warriors in the public square."
"We’ve always been an arena for debate and controversy, and we welcome that. But we are now a regular actor in political dramas we didn’t seek and don’t control," she said. "That takes a toll, both in terms of public perception and in our day-to-day ability to get things done."
Asked to further explain the political divide over higher education, Spellings suggested that skeptics "are concerned about whether this is an institution that has an orthodoxy that is different from what a lot of families have. That it is a place that people go to be – get indoctrinated in a point of view. I think that they see speakers that are invited to campuses that are often not treated – not very kindly.
"I think people think, 'Well, what is the value proposition here? Is it worth a quarter-million dollars for my student to come live at home when they finish and work at a coffee shop?'" she concluded.
To answer the question of value, Spellings, who was one of the authors of the No Child Left Behind law, said student performance should be measured quantitatively against national standards, an argument she made in 2005 but which many at the time called unworkable.
She said the decline of public confidence in the higher education system should push policymakers to reconsider standardized assessments.
"A decade on from the commission report, we still know very little about whether our institutions of higher learning are succeeding at their core mission. We don’t know whether they are effectively teaching critical reasoning, fundamental mastery of science and mathematics, or advanced reading, writing and communications skills," she said. "We need to understand how well we do what we do, and if we’re as great as we say we are, I don’t think we have anything to hide. I think we have a lot to show for ourselves, and it’ll help us make our case to an ever-skeptical public."