The Agenda

Margaret Spellings on Higher Education Reform

Margaret Spellings, a Bush administration veteran and a champion of higher education reform, offers a scrupulously polite critique of President Obama’s new higher education push in an interview with Michael Stratford of Inside Higher Education.

Q. What’s your reaction to the higher education plan President Obama unveiled last month?

A. It’s encouraging that he’s weighed in on the issue. His leadership matters. He has a big microphone. It’s the right issue at the right time, and I commend him for engaging on it. Having said that, some of the proposals are unworkable and ill-conceived in the short run. We need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences. It’s a little bit of a bridge too far, particularly when the data is so lacking at the moment.

Q. One of those data-related obstacles, arguably, is the lack of a federal “unit record” database. Do you support one?

A. I do indeed. What we have now is sort of these cul-de-sac systems with states doing their own thing. That’s better than nothing. But particularly in a commodity, if you will, that is so interstate, we should do better than that given our very robust investments in higher education at the federal level. So, yes, I think we need a federal unit record system and called for it many years ago.

Spellings acknowledges that Republicans are among the staunchest critics of a unit record database, and she argues that “If we’re going to invest federal tax dollars, then we ought to know what we’re getting for it.” As for the fact that the president’s proposals have met with a warmer reception than her own very similar proposals in 2006, Spellings notes both that the foundation world, the business community, and other interest groups have made it more acceptable to talk about higher education effectiveness and that the academy might be more inclined to give a Democratic president leeway than a Republican. One hopes that Spellings will figure prominently in a future GOP administration, as she is clearly very impressive. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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