The Spellings Commission: Same Story, Different Decade

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Eleven years ago today, the Department of Education released the culminating report of its Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. That report, spearheaded by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, laid out a bold vision for greater accountability and transparency in the postsecondary education system.

But over a decade later, few of the report’s recommendations have been adopted, and many of the proposed improvements have continued to stall:

  • Access to Higher Education: The Spellings Commission called for a seamless pathway between high school and college, one that would help more high school graduates be prepared for and enroll in higher education. Yet the rate of college enrollment for recent high school graduates has barely increased since the report’s release; and a recent report from the GAO highlights the continued problems with facilitating transfer across institutions, another area noted for improvement by the Commission. 

  • The Costs of College: With costs of college continuing to rise, students are taking on more debt and all too often struggling to repay their loans. The Spellings Commission called on increases to need-based student aid from the federal government, states, and institutions, with a system of accountability based on students’ outcomes -- a lofty vision for higher education that couldn’t be much further from reality. Today’s federal financial aid system provides easy access to taxpayer dollars for even the poorest-quality institutions, while most Pell Grant recipients are also forced to take on loans to finance their education. Despite the important step taken in this field to restore students’ access to the year-round Pell Grant, Congress has neglected to take the critical step of tying the maximum Pell Grant award to inflation

  • Simplifying the Federal Aid System: The Spellings Commission noted the byzantine federal financial aid system students must navigate to go to school. Yet since the report’s release, the system has grown more complex, not less. Today, the Department has four income-driven repayment plans; federal aid has grown more complex with the addition of new requirements like capping the timeframe for which students may be eligible for various types of aid; and students continue to struggle to understand their options. In fact, the single case in which the system may become simpler is with the expected expiration of the Perkins Loan program this month; and in that case, there are no plans to increase need-based aid available to students through the Pell Grant program, as the Commission recommended.

  • Improving the Rigor of Accreditation Processes: Noting that accreditors are focused too much on inputs in approving and ensuring the quality of institutions, the Commission report recommended that accreditors make student outcomes an integral part of their process. Yet few accrediting agencies have taken this challenge seriously, instead opting to gloss over--and continue to fully approve--many of the schools with the most egregiously bad outcomes. While NACIQI, the independent advisory body that makes recommendations on accreditation decisions to the Department, has increased its own focus on outcomes, it has rarely been with the cooperation of accrediting agencies. And even after the Department of Education and NACIQI elected last year to withdraw recognition for an accrediting agency with an impressive concentration of the poorest-quality schools, it looks like the Trump Administration has reversed course to offer them another opportunity.

  • Funding Innovative, Evidence-Based Practices: The Commission’s recommendation to improve the quality of teaching and learning in higher education through a revitalized Department program reads like an ode to the recent past. After several years of a program that seeded innovation and built the body of evidence about what works in higher education, Congressional appropriators eliminated funding for the program in 2016. Another program, the Experimental Sites Initiative, has functioned more like an opportunity for regulatory relief and policymaking-by-executive-action than a legitimate experiment. It’s time for Congress to bring back a focus on evidence-based practices in the Higher Education Act--but to date, there are few champions on Capitol Hill willing to sponsor such an effort.

Perhaps the most clear-cut example of post-Commission failures comes with the topic of transparency, though. The Commission envisioned establishing a data infrastructure able to produce and publish colleges’ outcomes to increase transparency and give students and policymakers the information they need to make smart decisions. Specifically, the report called on the Department of Education to create a privacy-protected, student-level data network that would support the production of data on institutional performance and post-college labor market success. Instead, Congress bent to institutional pressure and instituted a ban on any such system just a few years after the report was published. (Check out our report, College Blackout, for more details on that ban.)

Fortunately, some are still working to making former-Secretary Spellings’ vision become a reality. A new piece of legislation, the College Transparency Act, has gained momentum among both House and Senate education committee members and today has dozens of cosponsors from both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention widespread support from researchers, institutions, and advocates. That bill would allow for the creation of a data system that could drastically simplify the current reporting structure institutions use; increase the availability of high-quality data for students and other stakeholders; and help students and their families to make the decisions about college that are right for them.

And, promisingly, in the meantime, the Department of Education has worked to release what data it can on institutional outcomes--demonstrating a bipartisan commitment to openness of data. It launched the College Scorecard in recent years to house never-before-released data on student debt, completion, and post-college earnings, and has continued to back that vision of heightened transparency by adding new reports on institutional compliance and other to the FSA Data Center.

The Spellings Commission did much of the hard work of identifying significant and persistent problems in higher education. But it’s up to Congress and the Department of Education to implement solutions to those problems. Here’s hoping we won’t be having the exact same conversation--again--a decade from now.


Authors:

Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. She previously served as a senior adviser on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.

Amy Laitinen is director for higher education with the Education Policy program at New America. She previously served as a policy advisor on higher education at both the U.S. Department of Education and the White House.