Ever since Ronald Reagan tried and failed to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, conservatives have found themselves in a quandary when it comes to reforming public higher education. Some continue to insist, rightly, that the Tenth Amendment places the power over education solely in the hands of the individual states. A different group, however, embraces efforts to improve higher education within the existing framework of federal entanglement. They reason that since taxpayers fund the federal government’s massive spending on higher education, we should use federal power to enhance affordability, quality, and access.
Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings certainly fits in the latter category. In 2006, her Spellings Commission called for a larger federal presence to enhance affordability and access through increasing accountability and transparency. Spellings envisioned boosting the importance of student outcomes in the accreditation process, reconfiguring federal student aid to encourage lower tuitions, and implementing federal tracking of individual student performance.
To that end, it is unsurprising that Spellings has commended President Obama’s proposal to tie federal aid to a new ratings system. She argues that Obama is taking on “the right issue at the right time,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Higher education is in dire need of accountability. In the past quarter-century, average tuitions have increased over 400 percent, far outpacing inflation and even healthcare-cost increases. Subsequently, students have amassed unprecedented debt. Adding insult to injury, around 36 percent of students show little to no increase in fundamental academic skills are four years of college.
It is unclear, however, that the President’s proposal would actually increase accountability. The President’s rating system would consider graduation rates, the percentage of low-income students enrolled, tuition prices, student-loan debt, and the earnings of graduates, but not the most crucial variable: student-learning outcomes. A better rankings system might factor in results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which measures students’ academic gains throughout their college experience. Including the CLA in the federal unit record system might alert students, parents, taxpayers, and policymakers to how much, or rather, how little so many college students get out of their four-year (-plus) investments. This rude awakening may spur another look at Charles Murray’s argument that too many students go to college today.
More alarming than what’s missing from the President’s ratings system is what it may one day include. Given the administration’s track record, it’s possible that federal funding might become tied to the administration-endorsed national curriculum for collegiate civic education, “A Crucible Moment,” which proposes transforming civic education into progressive activism. Additionally, the federal government might choose to tie aid to whether universities uphold its “breathtakingly bold” and almost certainly unconstitutional sexual harassment mandates.
Doubtless, none of these consequences would be acceptable to Spellings. However, the ratings system’s deficiencies and possible consequences illustrates that conservatives should question the value of working within the federal framework to fix higher education.