By Richard Vedder
I attended Margaret Spellings' major speech on higher education yesterday, and thought on the whole it was good and especially well delivered. I particularly liked her commitment to match efforts of institutions and states in funding the provision of much greater data about institutions to prospective students and the general public. I also was impressed by the Secretary's adroit handling of questions, and her obvious command of facts and background information. I have known the Secretary for a bit over a year, and my respect for her and the job she is doing has increased significantly with the passage of time.
I am somewhat skeptical, however, of how much real reform will come of the Spellings Commission's report and the follow-up. I think the Secretary's heart is in the right place, and I think she will push for some positive changes. However, as indicated in a blog posted recently, I would note that there are a lot of issues that the Commission either ignored, or treated in a vague way -- federal student loan programs top the list, for example. The devil is in the details, and when it comes to those details, the voices of reaction (led in the higher education community most prominently in the past year by David Warren representing the independent colleges) have had good success in thwarting real reform.
Another interesting thing from yesterday's press briefing was the extent that the nation's media are NOT really that interested in higher education. At least half the questions directed at the Secretary were about K-12 issues. Higher ed is on the radar screen, but just barely. It is difficult to achieve significant reform when some of those being asked to change are resistant, and when the public (as reflected in media interest) views this as a matter of secondary importance.
All of this, of course, reflects the fact that universities and colleges are largely unaccountable and funded by third parties insulated from the same sorts of discipline governing behavior prevailing in the competitive market economy. As long as people drop money out of airplanes over universities and ask little in return, you are going to find it hard to effect changes that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of postsecondary education in the United States. Having said this, however, I still think the efforts to hold universities accountable and behave transparently could have some positive dividends.