Spellings Offers to Ease College Process

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 8:40 PM

WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings launched plans Tuesday to redefine the college experience, promising less confusion and more results for families.

Spellings said she would make a handful of changes on her own and start building support for some of the more sweeping ideas that came from her higher education commission.

Chief among them is the creation of a massive information-sharing system, opening up greater review of how colleges and universities are performing. It would require vast data collection on individual students, already raising privacy concerns in some corners.

Spellings also pledged to make it easier for people to apply for financial aid and to compare the price and the value of one school to another. She spoke of more federal college aid but would not endorse a specific request to raise Pell Grants, as her commission wanted.

Sensitive to how colleges would react to her plans, Spellings heaped praise on them. Then she mocked the idea that everything is fine.

"Is it fine that college tuition has outpaced inflation?" she asked in a National Press Club speech. "Is it fine that only half our students graduate on time? Is it fine that students often graduate so saddled with debt that they can't buy a home or start a family? None of this seems fine to me."

President Bush said Tuesday that he strongly supports the initiative. But even with the leverage of her office and Bush's ear, Spellings will need help to turn the ideas into action. In most cases, she will need support from Congress, governors, state boards of education and a complex mix of public and private colleges.

Her overarching theme is to make everything about college _ choosing one, affording one, succeeding in one _ easier for families. Parents should be able to shop for a college as simply as they shop for a car, she said, with a clear expectation of what they will get.

Spellings admitted she's been frustrated, as a mom, in getting those answers herself. Her oldest daughter, Mary, is a sophomore at Davidson College in North Carolina.

"Over the years, we've invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and basically hoped for the best," Spellings said. "We deserve better than that."

The admonition drew a variety of reactions.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, was the only member of Spellings' commission to vote against the group's recommendations. But he said Spellings' speech eased his concern that she was poised to enact some one-size-fits-all standards.

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