Education Deptartment plans new measures for universities

The Department of Education has unveiled its new plan for higher education, a plan which USA Today called “No College Student Left Behind” in a September 27 article.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the initiatives for U.S. colleges at the National Press Club on September 26. She proposed a multi-point action plan to make schools accountable, affordable, and accessible.

In her address, Spellings suggested evaluating student learning at colleges using standardized tests and government-regulated advisory programs.

External federal assessments would be a big change for schools such as Carnegie Mellon, which employ their own internal audits to evaluate individual learning objectives.

William Elliott, vice-president of enrollment, believes that federal evaluations of schools such as Carnegie Mellon are not necessary. He thinks the extensive internal assessment that the university already conducts every year is sufficient.

“Carnegie Mellon is always striving towards perfection, and we are hard enough on ourselves,” he said. “We take our role and responsibility to the world very seriously, and we are doing the best we can.”

The internal audit the university already has in place uses representatives from the board of trustees, peer colleges, industry, and government to assess the quality of the Carnegie Mellon program.

This year, the internal accreditation review at Carnegie Mellon, which uses data from professors, students, and graduates, will specifically emphasize the evaluation of student learning.

Spellings also suggested using standardized methods for assessing colleges’ progress. According to the USA Today article, she proposed a tracking system that would compare individual performances of both student and graduates to evaluate colleges.
Caroline Acker, a history professor in H&SS, is concerned with how federal standards will interface with the university’s current initiatives.

“Any attempt to measure college student learning through standardized measures also threatens to stifle curricular innovation,” she said. “Project courses bring students from different disciplines together. They also give students the opportunity to engage with community-based organizations and work out theoretically sound, real-world understandings of problems.”

Acker said she also lacks faith in the government’s ability to measure the undergraduate research opportunities.

Spellings announced her plans to use a database to streamline the financial aid application process by integrating IRS data with academic progress data. This would enable colleges to notify students of their eligibility to receive assistance as early as possible.
Some students disagree with the idea of a federal database.

“There is no reason they need that information,” said Jimmy Dougherty, a sophomore history major.

Elliott also has concerns about privacy, but he admits a database would help streamline the process.

“Applying for federal aid can be bureaucratic; this may help,” he said. “It would be easier to link the financial aid application to the IRS.”

In conjunction with this, Spellings also announced she will be allocating more money to colleges for financial aid. The Department of Education wants to use funds to encourage colleges to publicize student learning outcomes.

Linda M. Anderson, director of student financial assistance and services, would have preferred that Spellings’ affordability initiatives be focused on Pell Grants.

“All schools want more Pell Grants,” she said.

Pell Grants are based on a formula that divides the sum of the grants from the government among the neediest applicants. Anderson feels that it is the ideal way to give financial aid because it comes with no provisions.

In defense of her plan’s lack of an increase in Pell Grants, Spellings noted that in a time of war and budget deficits it is hard to make such a strong commitment.

“We all share a commitment to Pell,” Spellings said in her address, noting that after negotiating the budget, she can verify specific dollar amounts.

Anderson is hopeful, as the federal government granted an increase in eligibility to Carnegie Mellon this year. The Higher Education Reconciliation Act allocated approximately $500,000 to the University.

“Pell Grants are an open discussion,” Anderson said. “The budget has to support it.”

Elliott also understands the complexities of Pell Grants but questions the involvement of the federal government in assessing which schools get more or less money.

Acker shares Elliott’s concern about federal involvement in individual college objectives: “Since a key component of a liberal education is the ability to frame problems — not just to devise answers — it’s hard to imagine how a standardized test could be a true measure of the kind of learning we want to have happen in colleges and universities.”