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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings Delivers Remarks at the 2008 Higher Education Summit, "A Test of Leadership," in Chicago


U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today delivered remarks on the progress that her Commission on the Future of Higher Education helped to facilitate, as well as discussed global competitiveness and the workforce needs of the 21st Century in Chicago, Ill. Following are her prepared remarks:

(Introduced by Charles Miller, chairman, Meridian National, Inc.)

Thank you, Charles, for introducing me.

Charles has been a great friend and a trusted mentor and adviser. One of the first pieces of advice he gave me was that changing higher education wasn’t going to be easy. You’ve heard of the “third rail”?

My Commission couldn’t have done its great work without Charles. Their report was a test of leadership not only for the academy, but also for my department. And I want to thank my Under Secretary Sara and her team for passing the test with flying colors.

Most importantly, I thank the pioneers from within the higher ed community who have embraced and advanced the commission’s recommendations. Your commitment and dedication are encouraging. We may “agree to disagree” on some issues. But we agree on a whole lot more.

Now, while I still have the bully pulpit, I want to speak frankly to you about what I think needs to be done. And I’m going to turn to history to help make my case.

History shows us that transformative change in higher education has often been driven by external events.

Take the GI Bill: millions of soldiers returning to America as civilians, looking for the opportunity to achieve the American Dream they fought so hard to protect.

At first, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins warned that by opening the ivory tower to 10 million World War II veterans, the legislation would convert colleges into “intellectual hobo jungles.”

Harvard President James Conant initially predicted that the bill would allow “the least capable among the war generation to flood the facilities for advanced education.” Later, he described the same soldiers as “the most mature and promising students Harvard has ever had.”

Of course, now we all know the true value of the bill. After so much controversy, the GI Bill produced 450,000 more engineers, 240,000 more accountants, 238,000 more teachers, 91,000 more scientists, 67,000 more doctors, 22,000 more dentists, plus one million other college-educated citizens within a single decade.

A few years later, another event spurred change. This time it was a satellite called Sputnik. People today forget how worried America was about that little beeping ball in space.

In response, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. President Eisenhower called it an “emergency undertaking.”

The law would provide loans to more than 1.5 million college students, producing 15,000 new PhD’s a year over the next 10 years. High school math and science curriculum was strengthened. And a new agency was formed, what we now know as DARPA. It would lead to the creation of the Internet.

The most recent crisis that sparked change was 9-11. Security concerns loomed as barriers to openness, student exchange, and scholarly endeavor. But now, as the system recovers and adjusts, it’s becoming even stronger.

Similarly, after the tragedy of Virginia Tech, we have built better plans to keep students safe and to protect their privacy.

The point is, we do not have to wait for an external threat to accomplish change.

Is it acceptable that students graduate from inner-city high schools, only to find that their curriculum was so watered-down and irrelevant that few colleges will accept them, without costly and time-consuming remedial courses?

Is it acceptable that the financial aid system is so confusing, complex and inefficient, that many young people, and their parents, simply throw up their hands and walk away?

Is it acceptable that the average graduating student is saddled with $20,000 in debt? $20,000 farther away from buying a home and starting a family. $20,000 less likely to give back to their country through teaching or public service.

That’s why, once again, we must change and adapt and respond. And we must do so immediately.

Time and again, we’ve proven that consumer needs and demands are not threats to quality. They are catalysts for innovation.

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems estimates that to keep up with international competition, at least 20 million more Americans must access higher education by 2025. 20 million people! That’s twice as many as the GI Bill aimed to serve.

To meet this challenge, we must improve the “Three A’s” access, affordability, and accountability.

My commissioners produced a provocative report. Where other reports are quickly shelved and forgotten, theirs hit a nerve. They provoked strong reactions and thoughtful discourse in the finest tradition of academic debate.

They found that one of the biggest barriers to change is a lack of coordination between high schools and higher ed. Too often, high school coursework is not rigorous or varied enough to act as a springboard to success in college.

On Tuesday, a coalition including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other leading business groups reiterated that we are far from meeting their needs. We’re nowhere near the goal of doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the STEM fields-science, technology, engineering, and math.

The problem is not a lack of resources. My department recently returned more than 500 million dollars in AC/SMART grants to the U.S. Treasury. Why? Because we could not find enough college-ready students from low-income families to take them. That’s 500 million dollars that has gone unused, and countless more untapped human potential.

As the Secretary of Education, I’m obligated to speak for students and families, and for we federal taxpayers who are one-third investors in higher education.

They rightly expect us to knock down barriers to progress - like an opaque accreditation process that often inhibits innovation instead of encouraging it, or discourages new players from entering the system.

They rightly expect us to build human capital by educating more people from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds.

They rightly expect us to use technology and innovation to advance change and empower students.

And, they rightly expect us to continue our traditional emphasis on excellence in research and scholarship, as well as to nurture and cultivate partnerships with private and philanthropic sectors.

Simply put, higher ed must become more agile, transparent, and student-centered.

We at the federal level are doing more.

Pell grantees in 2008 will benefit from the largest increase in their annual award in 30 years. In addition, all students will benefit from new tools to help them choose a college and apply for financial aid. Like College dot gov, the FAFSA4caster, the College Navigator and the Federal Aid First brochure that Under Secretary Tucker discussed yesterday.

In addition, I’m heartened that a pioneering band of innovators are embracing the commission’s recommendations many of them in this room.

I’ve seen the fruits of their labors. In May I saw students from more than 150 nations graduate from Miami Dade College. Under the leadership of my friend Eduardo Padron, Miami Dade has become the nation’s leader in graduating low income and minority students, and students who are the first in their family to earn a degree.

We see the tremendous potential of increased transparency in MIT’s new free open courseware, and in Stanford’s podcasts of hundreds of free courses.

We see it at James Madison University, a leader in sharing information to help families make wise choices. As their web site says, “Some say their education programs are successful at JMU, we can prove it!” I love that.

We owe it to students and families to reinforce these efforts. As one of my critics has said: “We’re educators if you feel that there is not enough information out there, well, by golly, we’ll give it to you.”

That promise is what American universities are all about. We’re not in the business of containing information or knowledge. We’re in the business of sharing it!

At the same time, I am disappointed that many challenges of leadership remain unmet. After all, American universities assemble some of the finest minds in the world, and your intellectual capacity is unbounded.

Rigorous debate and analysis are the hallmarks of the academy. And your ability to question traditions and challenge assumptions has made our system the finest in the world.

Yet there is often real hesitancy to turn that critical thinking inward. I have been proud to lead delegations of university presidents to nations around the world. Everywhere I go, I tell students about the unmatched benefits of the American system of higher education. I am your number one advocate.

But as the mother of a teenager, I also believe in what some people call “tough love.”

So, I feel honor-bound to remind you that in the absence of continued leadership in education, others will step in. When public demand reaches critical mass, policymakers are compelled to act whether they’re in the Congress or on state boards or in state legislatures.

I suspect their solutions will likely not be as informed or sophisticated as what you would propose. Because while terms like “access, affordability, and accountability” are abstract concepts to many in Washington, they represent real-life challenges to students and faculties. And policymakers are pressured and obligated to respond.

In Washington, even as we speak, the Congress is contemplating actions that many in the Academy view as micromanagement and mandates. For example, there are proposals that would ask you to regulate Internet piracy, to report the number of fire drills you hold each year, and to keep track of any student leaving campus for more than 24 hours.

To meet our need for 20 million, 20 million by 2025, we must broaden and elevate the conversation.

Let’s start by giving ourselves a deadline to reach the halfway point by the next Presidential election in 2012.

We have only just begun to tap the potential of the American population a population with strengths and talents even more diverse and abundant then those of our universities. Transforming to meet their needs will take time, resources, and sustained effort. And I challenge the next administration no matter what party they represent to carry forward the progress we’ve made so far.

I know we can reach our goal because we’ve done it many times before.

The GI Bill was signed into law on June 22, 1944. Within the next 12 years, nearly 8 million veterans took advantage of its education benefits.

Sputnik flew through the sky on October 4, 1957. Within the next 10 years, we tripled the number of math and science PhDs awarded annually.

I formed my commission in October 2005. By educating 20 million more people over 20 years, we will increase our Gross Domestic Product by 500 billion dollars. Half a million more people will be employed. 20 million people will be much more likely to vote and engage in their communities. 20 million will be more likely to live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives.

Together, our leadership can and will make this dream a reality. So let’s get to work!

Thank you. I’d be happy to answer your questions.


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