MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A year ago, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings formed a special commission to come up with a comprehensive national strategy for curbing costs, increasing access and improving student performance at colleges and universities. A draft quickly sparked controversy. Academics felt the group focused on flaws instead of looking for successes that could be emulated. And there were worries that the Bush administration would push for testing to gauge student performance and justify federal funding.

NORRIS: When Secretary Margaret Spellings created the Higher Ed Commission she promised to come back and chat with us once the work was complete. And she's done that. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (U.S. Secretary of Education): I'm glad to be here. Thanks for the second invitation.

NORRIS: The draft report characterized American universities and colleges as quote, increasingly risk adverse, at times self satisfied, and unduly expensive. It sounds like a fairly harsh assessment.

Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, you know, our strategy has been for a long time to really put, you know, $120 billion or more out the door of this department every year and kind of hope for the best, and when higher education was sort of a nice to have, that might have been ok. But ever more it's the case that higher education is a must have, that 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs in this country require post secondary education.

And only a third of Americans have that kind of capability and so we have a growing disconnect between the needs of the workforce and the preparedness of the American people.

NORRIS: This is quite a lengthy report, but in short what needs to change?

Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, really the recommendations center in three central themes. One is affordability. And they place a major emphasis - and I agree with them -that we need focus on need-based aid.

Also, and I think every bit as importantly, they focus on information, transparency, and accountability. I mean, having just gone through this myself, when you try to make decisions about where your child should attend college, it's very hard to find out, you know, is it a better deal to get out of my state college in six years or to send my child to a far more expensive private school and get out in four. What are her prospects for employment after she graduates? What kind of average starting salary might she expect?

You know, you can find lots of information on, you know, Greek life and dorm food and climbing walls and that sort of thing, but it's really hard to find out how well will your child be educated after a hugely expensive investment for families.

NORRIS: I want to pick up on that last point, accountability. That is a word that is favored in this administration. The commission suggests that colleges and universities need to demonstrate what students have learned during their enrollment. This sounds almost like a call for testing at higher education institutions. Do you support that idea?

Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I support that idea being done by the institutional or system level. I mean, certainly the Federal Department of Education is not -emphatically is not - going to have a one size fits all assessment system. That would be foolhardy and ill advised. But is it important for university systems or universities themselves to try to ascertain the value added by their institution? I'm absolutely supportive of that.

We at the federal level are a one third investor in this enterprise. We've got to get away from putting the money out and hoping for the best, because what we're getting is not good enough for our country and its citizens going forward.

NORRIS: But given the consternation among academics over the process and some of the findings, how do you turn this into an action plan to make sure that it doesn't just sit in a big fat binder on someone's bookshelf?

Ms. SPELLINGS: Obviously, there are aspects that the Congress must work on. Such as, you know, 17 different types of financial aid programs. There are some things that I can do and I intend to do in the short run. There are authorities invested in me as the Secretary that relate to the accrediting process and that relate to the usability of the financial aid process.

But clearly it calls on others involved in the system and recognizes that the real work in this enterprise is going to be done not at the Department of Education and that's why, you know, we need to provide incentives and assistance for states who are willing to measure the value added in learning. So, you know, those are the sorts of specific action steps I'll be taking immediately as well as holding a discussion more broadly than the commission about these issues with all the various stakeholders.

NORRIS: Secretary Spellings, good to talk you. Thanks so much for your time.

Ms. SPELLINGS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. For details of the Commissions recommendations and Secretary Spellings plan to implement some of them, go to our Web site, NPR.org.

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