Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system, formed a national commission under her name when she worked as President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, and it looked at policy and the state of things in higher education. That was a good idea, and Spellings hosted a meeting in Chapel Hill to review progress on the commission’s findings. Some top educators came to town for the meeting.
Spellings made some good points both in the meeting and in an interview with The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill.
One that’s most important is the need to hold down the cost of a four-year university or college education. “We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market,” Spellings said. She also thinks universities can do better when it comes to financial aid. And, online education is popular as a lower-cost alternative.
Spellings dealt in the bigger picture, and one valid point was that universities need to better measure their students’ learning. That’s part of overall accountability, something that is more important given the public’s apparent diminished confidence in higher education.
“As a lifetime public policymaker,” Spellings said, “I can tell you in no uncertain terms: Our aversion to meaningful, reasonable accountability and transparency in student outcomes has hurt us. 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.”
At the end of the day, it’s important to always remember that from its earliest days, this is a university, with all its branches, that has changed North Carolina for the better and helped to enhance its image not just in the nation but in the world. But Spellings is right to challenge the university to do better.