Washington Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called Tuesday for greater fiscal and academic accountability in higher education and endorsed a controversial plan to keep long-term records on students that would track performance from the time they enter the system in grade school to show how their educations progress.
Responding to the final report from her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Spellings also implored schools to hold costs down for low-income students. She pledged to seek more financial aid for students but largely sidestepped the commission's bold proposal for a substantial increase in need-based Pell Grants.
In general, the commission, which Spellings appointed, painted a bleak picture of a prohibitively expensive higher education system that serves the wealthy, and one in which schools are not held accountable for student performance.
The commission proposed that colleges regularly test their students to ensure that the schools are meeting their academic promises and goals, the results of which would be part of a public database that would ultimately help students and parents assess and choose schools. Spellings made the point that few objective measures for judging the quality of a school are available to parents.
At the commission's recommendation, Spellings is offering financial incentives to schools that voluntarily report student assessments.
"Our universities are known as the best in the world, and a lot of people will tell you things are going just fine," Spellings said in a speech at the National Press Club. "But when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education, and fewer and fewer Americans are getting one, are we satisfied with just fine?"
The commission recommended increasing the value of Pell Grants to cover 70 percent of the average in-state tuition at public colleges; the grants now cover only 48 percent of tuition. Spellings did call for a complete overhaul and streamlining of the unwieldy college aid system and acknowledged that more money is needed, but she stopped short of endorsing increases in Pell Grants.
David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said: "I found that quite remarkable, because it was the key recommendation from the commission. Yet she endorsed a unit record database, which would be enormously expensive to implement."
The association and other school groups oppose a data collecting system that would track individual students because they worry it would infringe on privacy. However, Warren acknowledged that some form of data collecting is needed to improve the system.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the senior Democrat on the education committee, criticized Spellings for not embracing the Pell Grant proposal and for not addressing the massive student loan industry, which he called "the most troubling aspect of higher education today."