The Corner

Politics & Policy

What Did Margaret Spellings Accomplish at UNC?

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., September 20, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/REUTERS)

The long-time associate of George W. Bush who served as his Secretary of Education and, later, as president of the University of North Carolina system has decided to leave before her term was up. Spellings didn’t do much that pleased conservatives in the state.

The Martin Center’s Shannon Watkins recently interviewed Spellings on her views on her tenure and thoughts about higher education.

Spellings is proud of a couple of initiatives meant to close the gaps that leftists always complain about. These include programs that make college at a few outlying UNC institutions extremely low in cost.  Not quite Bernie Sanders’ free college, but getting close. She points to a few successes, although good students who are really able to benefit from college probably would have found paths to success anyway. The trouble with these ultra-low cost programs is that most of the students who are lured in aren’t college material at all and are better off finding other kinds of training after high school.

Asked about the declining confidence Americans are showing in higher education, Spellings said, “People do believe in higher education and they do believe that it’s the key to a successful and prosperous life. We’ve got some polling data that we’ll release fairly soon from Gallup that says that people—a high percentage, somewhere in the 80s—think that higher education is key to a better life; they buy into that proposition.”

The problem is that such confidence is misplaced. It reflects the notion, carefully cultivated by the educational industry, that people need formal degrees behind their names if they’re to have any chance at a good life. But college degrees are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for a good life. As Professor Bryan Caplan argued in his book The Case Against Education, the country would be much better off if we stopped pushing the “college for everyone” idea.

When Watkins asked how leaders might increase confidence in higher education, Spellings replied,  “Do people see their own values reflected in this institution, in terms of orthodoxy? I think we need to do a better job of heartening that balance—I don’t think we have enough of it; we need to work on it. We talk about diversity: diversity of thought, diversity of viewpoint, and civil discourse. People need to see those kinds of things in the institutions that taxpayers support.”

Does that answer give you any confidence?

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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