ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Federal Focus on Higher Ed

September 19, 2005 by ACTA

The federal government is responsible for about a third of higher education spending in the U.S., which it does in the form of research grants and student financial aid programs. That investment is far greater than the government's investment in K-12 education (which amounts to about 10%), and yet governmental interest in quality control and standardization has thus far focussed on K-12 in the form of NCLB. Today may mark the beginning of a change, however.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is scheduled to speak today at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and she intends to use her speech to unveil plans for "a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education." Spellings says she is "not advocating a bigger role for the federal government in higher education" but stresses, too, that the country ''needs a coordinated approach to meet rising enrollment numbers and new economic demands." It's hard to see how the one can be achieved without the other, and it's easy to see how rhetoric may be operating here to anticipate and appease the most obvious and most damning criticism that Spellings' plan invites: that hers is an intrusive, impractical, and potentially undemocratic blueprint for governmental intervention in the expressive individuality and procedural autonomy of America's colleges and universities.

At the same time, Spellings is pinpointing an increasingly prohibitive national problem. We simply don't know much about what's happening on campus these days. We have plenty of suspect rankings systems, plenty of stories about overpaid presidents and misguided use of funds, plenty of studies documenting the overwhelmingly liberal bent of the American professoriate, and plenty of complaints about schools overcharging their students, inflating their grades, dumbing down curricula, and substituting politically biased proselytizing for genuine liberal arts education. But we have little in the way of systematic knowledge, and because of that it is just about impossible to talk constructively about how to address what many are beginning to regard as a crisis in higher education.

Spellings proposes to gather--or at least to begin to gather--some of the information we all need if we are to understand the nature of the problems higher education faces. Spellings' commission will be spearheaded by Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents. Others who will serve include Jim Hunt, governor of North Carolina; David Ward, president of the American Council on Education; and Jonathan Grayer, CEO of the Kaplan test prep company.

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