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Margaret Spellings' Higher Education Report: Toward the Utter Stupidification of American Higher Education

Let's be clear about this initiative: It represents a frontal assault on the U.S. higher educational system, under the guise of reform.
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The same folks who brought you Katrina Relief--Bush administration hacks and Republican party loyalists--now want their K-Street cronies to regulate the entire U.S. college and university system. These appointees and apparatchiks are proposing lock-step federal regulation and oversight over all colleges and universities--and tracking every single student's lifelong educational record--in order, they say, to better help consumers. Yeah, right.

Get this: they want to create a massive central database, a huge federal registry, that stores every single student's educational record (with enrollment information, academic performance, along with personal financial aid information) starting from kindergarten through high school, through college, and beyond into the workplace, so that they can "track" employment outcomes. Thank you, Big Brother. You can be certain that Halliburton--or one of its subsidiaries--will get a piece of that delicious pie.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and other groups have raised obvious privacy issues, especially since the Commission at one point proposed using students' Social Security numbers to link transcript information to the central database.

Charles Miller, the Chairman of the Spellings Commission, barked back: "I don't know who appointed them [private colleges] guardians of privacy." Mr. Miller, a private family investor with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, is the Former Chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas system--another under-qualified Gov. George W. Bush appointee come back to haunt us on the national scene. By the way, thank you for your reassurances about student privacy, Chuck.

So who's doing all of this? George W. Bush's Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, assembled a handpicked commission, stacked it with corporate executives along with some respectable-sounding front men for various groups, and gave them the charge that the entire U.S. higher education system ought to be radically restructured along more aggressively pro-business lines. Margaret Spellings is the former Bush adviser who brought you No Child Left Behind. She's been on the George W. Bush payroll for the last twelve years--and her connection to George is her main qualification for undertaking this enormous initiative. Maybe she'd like to practice what she now preaches and release her own past test results and complete academic record to prove her own qualifications for this particular task. With but a bachelor's degree under her own belt, she now has the breathtaking audacity to tell every single higher education institution in America, public and private, vocational and liberal arts, that they should march to her tune. You're doing a heckuva job, Maggie.

Much like No Child Left Behind, Margaret Spellings wants uniform measurement testing in colleges, so that colleges would have to prove "value added" outcome information to prospective consumers (and in order to receive federal funding for financial aid). Some concerned parties are breathing a sigh of relief that the final report seems to back off some of its earlier drafted dictates. Yet the published report still cites as exemplary the "Collegiate Learning Assessment," a comprehensive test to be used across campuses, administered to frosh and to seniors, so that baseline test scores can be compared to final results, with all such data aggregated to "allow for inter-institutional comparisons to show how each institution contributes to learning."

Did anyone on the Commission realize how absurdly impractical and pedagogically destructive such tests would be in a liberal arts environment (where broad-based, well-rounded undergraduate education is showcased and celebrated)? You're going to give a "comprehensive test" to incoming students about how much they know about Shakespeare, geology, astronomy, linguistics, various foreign languages, political science, writing, music, theater, psychology, neuroscience, and so on? And then do an exit exam on the same material? Or have a federally administered SAT going in and going out? And then try to yield commensurable data across campuses? These people are either fools, or they are not serious because they are pursing an ulterior agenda, or both of the above.

They've gussied up the proposal with flowery language in order to preempt and divide potential opposition. Few would argue with the Commission's exalted recommendation that "every student in the nation should have to opportunity to pursue postsecondary education" or that "America must ensure that our citizens have access to high-quality and affordable educational, learning, and training opportunities throughout their lives." Meanwhile, they want to streamline financial aid opportunities and yet say nothing about increasing such aid--and they want to withhold financial aid funds as leverage so that colleges must become more "accountable" to their particular standards. They cynically describe this shift to federal consolidation as a change "from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance." Whatever happened to the accountability and efficiency of the market? Remember, these Bushites are believers (and stakeholders) in crony-capitalism and bloated bureaucracies, whereas many of our academic institutions have remained globally competitive precisely because they have built up their independent successes over many decades while adapting innovatively with the times.

Reasonable people are scratching their heads in wonderment about how such a Commission could make such boneheadedly preposterous proposals. Commissioner David Ward, who is also President of the American Council on Education, refused to sign the document. On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development and former U.S. Secretary of Education, issued a press release expressing his opposition to the Commission's heavy-handed recommendations:

"I like Secretary Spellings' recommendations to simplify financial aid, improve access, and to find ways to reduce costs. But I am troubled that her Commission on Higher Education believes that having 'a complex, decentralized, postsecondary education system [with] no comprehensive strategy' is a weakness. I believe the opposite.

"The key to the quality of American higher education is that it is NOT one system. It is a marketplace of more than 6,000 autonomous institutions regulated primarily by competition (for students, faculty and research dollars) and by consumer choice (federal dollars following students to institutions of their choosing). There is, in addition, an independent system of accreditation.

"The Secretary says new accountability efforts cannot be charted by the federal government alone. I agree. I will monitor carefully new federal efforts to collect data. Information for consumers is a good thing. But American higher education does not need a barrage of new regulations imposing new costs so someone in Washington can try to figure out how to improve the Harvard Classics department and Nashville Auto Diesel College--both of whose students are eligible for federal grants and loans.

"I believe the overregulation of higher education is the greatest deterrent to maintaining its quality and that autonomy, competition and choice are the greatest incentives to excellence."

Let's be clear about this initiative: It represents a frontal assault on the U.S. higher educational system, under the guise of reform. The Bushites want to pull the purse strings on these supposedly liberal bastions of progressive thought, and to get dissenting people to kowtow and shut up along the way. Don't be fooled by the Trojan-horse cover language in the report claiming that what the Commission really wants to do is to make college more affordable and user-friendly. Don't be distracted if a few accommodating academics voice support for the proposal, or parts thereof (if the support is strong, however, follow the money trail). Basically the same folks who dismantled FEMA (and have been trying to do the same with other public agencies and institutions) now want to bring their politicized incompetence to all of higher education in America.

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