Education Dept. to determine college performance by tracking students

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Sept. 26 announced plans to overhaul post-secondary education nationwide by revamping the financial aid process and holding college and universities accountable for student learning.

Her announcement came on the heels of a report released the previous week by a 19-member higher education commission formed last year.

The report stressed a need “to address the issues of accessibility, affordability and accountability” in higher education.

Spellings described five “actions” under her plan, including the creation of a “higher education information system” and the expansion of President Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind program.

The information system would use privacy-protected, student-level data to improve the Department of Education’s ranking and searching systems.

These changes, according to Spellings, would provide more resources to help students research higher education and would allow for higher education to be judged on performance, not reputation. The data, however, would have to be provided by the colleges and universities themselves.

“In almost every area of our government, we expect transparency and accountability, from prescription drug programs to housing to K-12 education,” said Spellings. “So if we’re that particular in those areas, shouldn’t we do the same with higher education, something so critical to our future success and quality of life?”

The first item she discussed specifically was “expanding the effective principles of No Child Left Behind and holding high schools accountable for results.”

Expanding No Child Left Behind is something that has faced opposition both in Congress and in the public. Spellings, however, stands by the program.

“It’s about specific targets for specific kids and is a major step forward in American public education,” she said. “So I stand by it. Those are the core principles of No Child Left Behind. I do not believe any of them should be revisited or retreated from.”

Another facet of Spellings’ plan involved improving the affordability of college through streamlining the financial aid process, and reducing the turnaround time for students to discover their financial-aid eligibility.

“We must increase need-based aid,” she said. “I look forward to teaming up with Congress again to improve the financial aid process and to help the students who need it the most.”

One thing Spellings did not specifically mention in her report was the issue of Pell Grants. The commission recommended across-the-board increases.

While Spellings did recognize the need for more money, she did not specifically mention increasing Pell Grants.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., issued a statement addressing the Pell Grant omission after an advance copy of Spellings’ speech was released.

Kennedy criticized the country’s student loan system as a whole, saying, “That system squanders billions each year to provide corporate welfare to big lenders, rather than serving the best interests of our students.”

Spellings also cautioned against providing more money as the sole solution: “More money isn’t going to make a difference if states and institutions don’t do their part to keep costs in line. . There are still too many who will say, ‘Just give us more money.'”

The plan of action may not be warmly received across the board, a fact Spellings acknowledged in tongue-in-cheek fashion.

“I realize that after what I’ve just said, commencement invitations may get lost in the mail,” she said.

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