Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Secretary Spellings’ absurd vision

The leader of the US Department of Education has a vision of a federal lever to transform performance in all educational institutions. During her predecessor’s term the Congress passed a law called “No Child Left Behind” – the noble goal was to encourage improved performance in the elementary and secondary schools across the country. Although the federal government provides only about 7% of the total resources provided for this enterprise there was an agreement at the federal level that the amount was enough to encourage the establishment of a series of new standards that have had the K-12 establishment turning back flips.

The first question should have been asked was whether this kind of "accountability" had even a scintilla of possibility for improving elementary and secondary education. The need for some changes in K-12 education is pretty well demonstrated – when you look at our K-12 performance compared to almost any other developed system in the world we have a lot to improve – in terms of educational attainment in both language and math performance. The response by Congress established a series of federal mandates that ultimately require a series of “accountability” measures which means tests for students.

Were one to think about how to reform an enterprise which is fundamentally a monopoly the first idea would not likely be to increase the level of bureaucracy – but that is exactly what No Child Left Behind proposed to do.

Earlier this year, Spellings created a commission to look at higher education. There are some real differences between K-12 and higher education. In the first instance higher education is a diverse system. Indeed, a worldwide review of higher education done by the Economist magazine last fall concluded that one reason the American system of higher education is the best in the world is that it is not a system.

Does that mean higher education is not in need of some significant changes? Of course not. Higher education in the US has an incomprehensible financing structure. A good deal of the promise of higher education is unrealized – access to higher education is under pressure. Lots of other countries are better at getting students into college and more importantly getting them to graduate. Some of the descriptions about performance are hyperbole - but some are very real. Performance, at least through graduation rates as an indicator, is not entirely commendable in the US. In one major public system in the West, if you are a Latino student you chance of graduating from college in four years is less than 20%.

But Spellings and her ally who chairs the Commission (a Texas businessman who is long on talk but not too keen on doing the basic research) have created an absurd level of performance in probity. For example Spellings and Chair Miller have claimed that the federal government provides a third of the total support for higher education in the country. To get to that number one needs to count all of the federal support for student aid (including the capital amount for loans), all of the budgetary support for research (this number includes all of the support although a more reasonable standard would be limited to the overhead costs paid to institutions). In addition, there is the capital contributions to loan programs (which is indeed a novel interpretation of how to book the costs of loan capital). Most amazingly, the private capital provided by lenders in the FFEL loan program is counted as a federal contribution.

Were Spellings’ rantings about how much the federal tax base provides not there, higher education still should be under some review for the kind and types of information they provide to their various publics. The spirit of all sorts of disclosure systems in various sectors of society should move higher education to think more carefully about the issue of transparency. That means a couple of things. First, colleges and universities should produce a simplified information sheet on their finances. What has happened to revenues and expenditures in recent years and how do those changes compare to comparable institutions. Second, they need to think about explaining some key information about their admissions and graduation records. How many students receive aid to reduce their cost of education? How long does the typical student take to graduate? What are the most popular majors? In a short paragraph, how would the institution define its unique features?

Higher education is a resource that makes a great contribution to the economy. But its natural propensities are to assume either expertise or simply the lack of a need to move toward more current standards of disclosure. That has to change. But trying to morph higher education into a clone for the bureaucratic nightmare that No Child Left Behind created for K-12 is a further foolish implementation of conservative nanny statism.

No comments: