UNC president: Higher education must adapt to new realities, and be affordable

UNC system President Margaret Spellings ranks highly in pay among public university leaders.
UNC system President Margaret Spellings ranks highly in pay among public university leaders.

UNC President Margaret Spellings said Tuesday that universities have made limited progress on essential reforms contemplated a decade ago, with more work to do on measuring student outcomes and ensuring that families can afford a college education for their children.

Her remarks came at the 11th anniversary of the national Spellings Commission report on the future of higher education, which recommended a series of improvements on student access, affordability, quality instruction and accountability. Spellings convened the national commission when she was education secretary under President George W. Bush, and the themes tackled then are relevant today, she said.

Higher education leaders gathered at UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday for a symposium that looked at the commission’s findings, then and now.

The event came at a time of shifting realities and polarized attitudes about higher education, when the nation has more student debt than credit card debt and national polls show shaky support for institutions that have long distinguished the United States.

“Today it seems like there are two competing narratives about higher education in our country. One, that it’s hopelessly broken, can’t adapt to meet the needs, in need of dramatic disruption,” Spellings said. “Or it’s extraordinary in every way, the finest in the world, and should be shielded and preserved as is.”

Neither is completely true, she said, but there is also a new reality. More is being asked of higher education at a time when many experts agree that adults will need some sort of education or training beyond high school to succeed in the economy of the future.

“It means we have to do more with less,” she said, adding, “It also means we have to challenge old ways of doing business.”

Higher education must do a better job in measuring student learning results, which could be done with more testing and other methods, she said. Universities should use new data tools to understand how their students learn and what kinds of instruction methods are most effective.

“As a lifetime public policymaker, I can tell you in no uncertain terms: Our aversion to meaningful, reasonable accountability and transparency in student outcomes has hurt us,” Spellings said. “Our collective reluctance to define measurable learning — to come up with transparent ways of owning our success and shortcomings — has undermined public confidence and emboldened a less effective, more ideological attitude of disruption.”

Polls have shown fading support for higher education, especially among Republicans. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while just 36 percent say their effect is positive. The finding represents a big change from just two years ago.

News & Observer education reporter Jane Stancill sits down for 10 questions in 10 minutes with UNC system president Margaret Spellings on the anniversary of her first year on the job.

Part of that might stem from the growing attention to political controversies and free speech scuffles, what Spellings called high-profile distractions.

“That’s especially true now for higher education, which has become the preferred venue for some of the sharpest partisans and some of the most strident culture warriors in the public square,” she said. “We’ve always been an arena for debate and controversy, and we welcome that, but we’re now a regular actor in political dramas we didn’t seek and don’t control. And that takes a toll, both in terms of public perception and in our day-to-day ability to get things done to serve our students better.”

The event featured several panel discussions of higher education leaders and experts. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said an anxiety has set in to the middle class since the recession.

“Nothing looks safe after 2008,” Sullivan said. “I think we also make a mistake if we overlook the fears that middle class families have about their own future and the future of their children.”

Spellings echoed that concern in her remarks. She said most families can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket for one year of education, and they look at college as “a closed door.” She said public doubt about higher education might be more a question of whether it’s still within reach.

“We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market,” she said, adding that universities should set about containing costs, fixing a fractured system of financial aid and promoting innovations.

United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax said colleges have been slow to embrace new approaches such as online education, which could extend educational access to many more students.

“I think there is too much complacency in higher education,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill