Friday, March 02, 2007

The Higher Education Summit

By Richard Vedder

Margaret Spellings, our Secretary of Education, has on balance been a very positive force in higher education, and her efforts to push reform have been welcomed. My regard for her has strengthened, not weakened with time. She is now bringing together a good sized (around 300, I think) group to DC on March 22 to discuss the next steps in higher education reform, how the recommendations of the Spellings Commission can be implemented, etc. I will be there, both for the full meetings and a couple more intimate meetings of a smaller number of persons with the Secretary.

While I favor radical reform, including the privatization of higher education and the reduction of the government's role, realistically her summit is likely to focus on smaller, less fundamental changes. Two are worthy of special attention. First, colleges need to be pressured to provide more information to consumers and policymakers in an easy to use, transparent manner. Some indicators of student progress while in school should be available to consumers readily - information from the National Survey of Student Engagement, Collegiate Learning Assessment, or other instruments.

Second, we need to get more specific about how to reform student aid. If I were czar, I would simply go to one program --an augmented Pell Grant program, doing away with 15-18 other forms of assistance, including such popular middle class "entitlements" as 529 Savings plans. I would get the government out of the student loan business (I bet Sallie Mae would love that idea!!) I would also give grants directly to the students, and cut off the student financial aid offices of individual colleges from administering the aid. But there are less radical options that might make sense:

1) Radically simplify the FAFSA form;
2) Reduce upper middle class support in the form of tax credits, etc. as a way of funding expanding Pell Grants
3) Make Pell Grants into vouchers issued to students directly

There may be other things that could be agreed upon by nearly everyone. With 300 in the room, even with the use of task forces and committees, I am not expecting any tangible immediate outcomes, but I might be surprised. I am going to be trying to push for more far-reaching solutions than the Establishment wants, I am sure. Stay tuned.

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