By Richard Vedder
I decided to take a short vacation from blogging, both because I am traveling a good deal on business these days, and because I am trying to work on the sequel to Going Broke By Degree with my sidekick Andy Gillen. But my friend Charlie Miller (chair of the Spellings Commission) called yesterday, and out of it comes today's blog.
Charlie told me about a couple studies worth reading. One is the report, out today, from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) that reviews and assesses the performance of the Spellings Commission. Apparently it is a scholarly, balanced work, done by academics. Doug Lederman reports today in INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION that the work criticizes the Commission some for being confrontational and harsh, and also representatives of various special interest groups for simply saying "no" and not offering constructive alternatives to what the Commission said.
I have not read the NACUBO report. But as a member of the commission and arguably one of its more confrontational members, I say the allegedly harsh tone was needed, that our audience was NOT mainly the higher education community itself, and that strong rhetorical flourishes helped accomplish a significant increase in the dialog over the need and nature of educational reform. We were trying to reach the American public, not just the players within the academy or even the Congress or Administration. Indeed, I preferred the original draft of the report prepared by Ben Wildavsky that was even more severe in its criticism.
Phil Gramm is right. America is increasingly a nation of whiners. The higher ed community is horrified whenever anyone says negative things about it. It is a group of spoiled and highly subsidized members of the chattering classes that needs to get real --something the Spellings Commission said in a very mild and civil way. People are still complaining about the report’s TONE --more than its substance.
Thursday and Friday Secretary Spellings is holding a Higher Education Summit in Chicago. I hope she uses the occasion to say some bold things about the nature and condition of higher education today --and offer some suggested changes, particularly in the bizarre, perverse and dysfunctional way the federal government gets involved in funding. I hope she moves in the direction of supporting empowering students more than financial aid offices, for example, and reducing the incentives for colleges to use federal funds as a means of reordering institutional resources to negate some of the intended impact of federal aid. Example: College A wants to give Kid B a $10,000 reduction in tuition from the sticker price. The Federal Government gives College A $4,000 to distribute to kid B in Pell Grant funds, so the college reduces the amount of its own support to, say, $7,000. The student on net is only $1,000 better off than without the Pell Grant, but the college gets $3,000 more to spend --which it might give as additional "merit" aid to some wealthy kid with a SAT composite of 1580 which it wants to nab to increase its selectivity rating with US News and World Report. The college and other students, not the student for whom the money is intended, is the prime beneficiary of the grant. I don't think Student Financial Aid offices should be getting federal money to disburse --the money should go to the kids themselves --with NO notification to the college in question.
Spellings should, rhetorically at least, advocate change. The White House, tired and largely brain dead, won't let her do bold things, but the time has come to ignore the White House and do the right thing. There are worse things than being fired and thrown off the Ship of State shortly before it sinks. I am eating dinner with the Secretary Thursday night and I hope to give this advice to her. I hope she takes it.