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Spellings: Higher-ed challenges ID’d a decade ago persist

Review of report issued in 2006 by Spellings Commission shows solutions remain elusive

UNC President Margaret Spellings. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
UNC President Margaret Spellings. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

CHAPEL HILL — More than 10 years after the Commission on the Future of Higher Education assessed the plight of American universities, experts say the problems they identified remain entrenched, and new challenges strains educators even further.

In 2005, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, now president of the University of North Carolina, tasked the commission with diagnosing weaknesses in higher education. The so-called “Spellings Commission” identified a host of concerns. But as she said during a Sept. 26 conference at UNC-Chapel Hill, pointing out problems and solving them are different challenges.

The commission released a 2006 report“A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.” The research outlined five challenges for colleges and universities: Access, affordability, quality, accountability, and innovation.

During the George W. Bush administration, gaps in higher education resulted from economic and social disruption. Technology was accelerating. Experts feared colleges would crumble under the stress of a changing work force and global marketplace.

Today, things don’t look so different, Spellings said.

Her role at UNC is “payback for the Spellings Commission,” she joked before an audience of university administrators and policymakers.

“It’s one thing to take a bunch of recommendations in Washington and put them out, and another thing to figure out how to implement it.”

“We really haven’t made as much progress as I think many of us would have hoped.”

Problems outlined more than a decade ago persist. UNC tuition costs for in-state students averages close to $7,000. Non-residents pay more than twice that to attend UNC schools. But most North Carolina families can’t afford to pay for even one year out-of-pocket, Spellings said.

“We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle-class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market.”

The Spellings’ Commission report labeled higher education as an “engine of mobility,” but that’s not the case for low-income and minority individuals, Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, told conference-goers.

Most institutions have done nothing to deal with issues of affordability, said Cheryl Oldham, senior vice president at the Center for Education and Workforce.

After becoming UNC president in 2015, Spellings built a strategic plan around the ideas of access, affordability, and accountability.

The UNC Board of Governors unanimously adopted the plan earlier this year. Since then, Spellings has repeatedly said she wants to gut the university budgeting system and overhaul administration to eliminate waste.

Additionally, in 2016 North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill to cut tuition at three UNC schools, including two Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In early September, the UNC board proposed more tuition cuts.

Universities must do their research, collect data, and analyze outcomes, she said. Success is determined by output, not input. Most universities fail to keep tabs on how well students are doing in class.  

In a nation where 70 percent of students attend public universities, it’s up to those taxpayer-funded schools to serve up some solutions, she said.

The commission didn’t solve everything, but it did set an agenda that “kick-started a chain of events,” Spellings said, pointing to Bill Gates and other philanthropists who have donated to higher education. Those efforts are an indirect result of the commission’s work, she said.  

The situation can improve further — but not if university leaders are distracted by politics and petty arguments, Spellings said.

The Spellings Commission developed a consensus while engaging members with a variety of perspectives. Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat and the state’s longest-serving governor, was one of 19 people who served on the commission. Others included Richard Vedder, a conservative economist and historian; Sara Martinez Tucker, former CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund; and Nicholas Donofrio, a former IBM executive.

“The most striking thing, looking back from 10 years later, is that we brought those voices together at the very highest levels and found overwhelming goodwill and agreement.”

If one thing has changed, it’s the tone of campus politics, she said.

“The true test of leadership in higher education is … resisting the endless stream of high-profile distractions. … That is especially true for higher education, which has become the preferred venue for some of the sharpest partisans, and some of the strident culture warriors in the public square.”

Universities always have welcomed debate and controversy, but now they are “actors in political dramas that we didn’t seek, and don’t control.”

“That takes a toll both in public perception and our day-to-day ability to serve students better.”

One of the commission’s proudest accomplishments was that it remained stubbornly focused on higher education, she said.

“You see it in the bipartisan agreement that everyone has that a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream should be available to all. Making that reality is our most urgent task. Today’s test of leadership.”