Secretary of Education pushes for testing of higher education institutions

College students who still have fresh memories of sweating their way through the SAT testing process and the angst-ridden college application ritual might have justifiably let out a snicker of delight last week.

Imagine their pleasure at the thought of having the tables turned on those same colleges that forced them through that painful judging process. That could be the case if U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings gets her way.

In a much-anticipated speech at the National Press Club in Washington last week,Spellings highlighted a five-point plan to put a fire under the American higher education establishment to start a process of what she called “long-overdue reform” to ensure American colleges don’t lose their global competitive edge.

One of the more controversial aspects of Spellings’ broad plan is to make public universities measure the value they add for students by having standardized testing. The idea is to give consumers – parents, prospective students and the taxpayers who pay for these schools – a better and more reliable measure of their performance than the highly suspect rankings that exist currently, such as those produced by U.S. News ‘ World Report, which don’t really get at how much a school teaches its students.

Spellings pushed the idea by noting – correctly – that “no current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point, student performance and learning. We absolutely should.”

Good idea – but with a catch. Schools are so different that it would be hard to make comparisons. I’ve always thought when you get right down to it, community colleges – the often forgotten sector of the academic world – arguably boost their students’ academic prowess more than elite schools like Harvard and Yale. Consider: The elites have a rigorous process to weed out all applicants except those who already show great

academic proficiency.

Community colleges, on the other hand, must take all comers. So they often are helping students make far greater strides academically than the progress of the already academically polished elite school students. That makes this testing idea somewhat suspect.

On the other hand, some measure of college performance beyond the silly U.S. News rankings would be welcome, given the huge financial investments that taxpayers – and families – make to send students to college. Are colleges really that efficient in how they use taxpayer and tuition money?

It makes you wonder when you hear what some college presidents say on the subject. At one hearing earlier this year hosted by the 19-member panel established by Spellings to come up with her reform proposal, Tufts University president Larry Bacow had this to say, according to the online publication Inside Higher Ed: “Our costs are completely beyond our control.” Talk about passing the buck on how you spend the bucks.

Many elite schools also talk a lot about the need for a diverse student body – and yet when it comes to economic diversity, they fail miserably. Look at the number of enrolled students at these elites who come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants. The percentages are often in the single digits. That’s unconscionable.

So greater accountability – whether through testing or more information for parents when selecting a school – would be a welcome improvement, and help make sure money is spent wisely.

But Spellings disappointed some student advocates when she didn’t promote one of the other recommendations made by her advisory panel, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. It had taken a hard look at the government’s own role in helping reduce costs for students, especially through the grossly underfunded Pell Grant program.

Over the decades, Congress and various presidents have failed to increase the budget for the Pell Grant program to keep pace with rising tuition costs. As a result, the Pell’s value has eroded substantially. And more students have reluctantly turned to the private loan industry to help pay for college – taking on debt and the interest they must pay back.

President Bush’s own budget request for 2007 called for keeping the maximum Pell Grant flat, at $4,050, for the fifth straight year.

Spellings’ commission has proposed increasing the value of the Pell Grant over five years so that it would cover 70 percent of the average in-state tuition at a public four-year college – up from 48 percent in the 2004-05 school year. The average Pell Grant is currently $2,445.

During her speech, Spellings briefly touched on the need to address student aid, saying that Congress “must increase need-based aid,” but didn’t raise the specific Pell Grant proposal,disappointing many.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy was most vocal on this point after Spellings’ speech, saying she should push the president to immediately raise the maximum Pell Grant amount.

And she should. He also said she should do more to address problems with the student loan industry.

Kennedy, the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, put it this way: “That system squanders billions each year to provide corporate welfare to big lenders,rather than serving the best interests of our students.”

Here’s an idea. Spellings said she wants to offer matching funds to colleges and states that collect and publicly report how well their students are learning. Maybe she could just order the states to report that info, and save the money. Then she could plow it in to the Pell Grant program. There’s a win-win, eh?