Spelling Disaster for Higher Ed

In a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made the prophecy come true.

In November – not long after Spellings announced the creation of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education – I wrote the following in a National Review Online op-ed:

In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the formation of a commission tasked with designing a “national strategy for higher education” to prepare us for the 21st century.

The commission is composed entirely of people in academia, government or big business, all of whom benefit when taxpayer money is shoveled into higher education. Its recommendations are therefore almost a foregone conclusion: The federal government should spend more on student aid supposedly to ensure, as Spellings demands, that we have a workforce for the 21st century, and on “basic” research that businesses want done, but on which they would rather not risk their own money.

Of course, with a unified national strategy two more things will come: federal control of academia and an end to the competition for students that has driven innovation in American higher education and made it the envy of the world.

In her speech yesterday, Spellings confirmed many of my fears from November, calling for more federal student aid, new federal databases populated with information on every student and college in America, and a federally funded program that would bribe schools into making all their students take standardized tests in order, supposedly, to measure their “learning outcomes.” And Spellings opened the door to do even more than that, announcing that she will be holding a “summit” this spring to discuss each and every proposal in the commission’s final report, which includes demands for substantially increased federal research spending, and a blanket charge to create a national “strategy for lifelong learning.”

What Spellings glossed over – as did the commission’s report – was the cause of higher education’s most basic problem, skyrocketing prices. Why? Probably because the federal government is to blame. Federal financial aid enables students to demand ever-more expensive college goodies, fueling, rather than grounding, the college cost rocket. Indeed, as George Leef of the John William Pope Center explains in a new study, it is abundant government aid, as well as politicians’ incessant and specious declarations that almost everyone needs to go to college, that drive almost all of higher education’s major problems. In addition to pushing up prices, government aid and political rhetoric have convinced woefully unprepared students to pursue schooling they can’t handle, fueled rampant “credentialism,” and rendered actual learning in college largely irrelevant.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Spellings’ efforts to control higher education, however, is that she openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher ed.

Maybe I’d better repeat that: She openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher education.

Apparently, our stagnant, embarrassing, public K-12 schools, which the federal No Child Left Behind Act has only made worse by encouraging states to lower academic standards and hide failures, have a lot to teach our colleges and universities, which are, if nothing else, hands down the most popular destinations in the world for international students.

Hopefully, it’s not too late for colleges and universities to realize what they’re heading for, and fight federal assaults tooth and nail. Today, we will begin to get an idea whether this will happen, both as reactions to Spellings’ plans hit the media, and at a special forum on overhauling the ivory tower to be held right here at Cato.

The prophecy about Spellings’ proposals has come true, but there’s still hope that those proposals won’t become reality.