Secretary Spellings Convenes First Meeting of Commission to Examine Future of Higher Education
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October 17, 2005
Contacts: Samara Yudof or Susan Aspey
(202) 401-1576

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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today delivered opening remarks at the first meeting of the Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Secretary Spellings created the commission to engage students and families, policymakers, business leaders and the academic community in a national dialogue about all aspects of higher education.

The commission will focus on ensuring America's system of higher education remains the finest in the world and continues to meet the needs of America's diverse population by expanding opportunity, innovation, and economic growth.

More information about the commission is available at:

The following are the Secretary's prepared remarks.

Thank you. It's an honor to be here for the first meeting of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. I want to thank all of you for serving. In your ranks today are university presidents, CEOs, policymakers, and researchers. You're all here because you share a common passion for improving higher education, and you have the courage to reflect on what we're doing well and what we can do better.

I also want to thank my friend Secretary Bodman for joining us today. At the federal level, higher education isn't just a priority for the Department of Education. It's an issue that affects every aspect of government, from commerce to energy and from labor to defense, and that's why I have asked eight federal agencies to participate on the commission. We all have a stake.

Let me give a special thanks to Charles Miller for chairing this commission. He's the former chair of the board of regents for the University of Texas System as well as a successful businessman who knows what's needed to succeed in the 21st century. He has a great perspective on how well universities are preparing students for the future.

As you all likely remember, in April 1983, we awoke to the news that America was 'A Nation at Risk' thanks to "a rising tide of mediocrity" in our public primary and secondary schools. Overnight, the report turned education reform into a hot topic of conversation and a front-page story. And while A Nation at Risk certainly didn't have all the right answers, it started a national debate that helped pave the way for higher standards, accountability, No Child Left Behind, and ultimately, improved student achievement for all children.

It's now time to launch a national dialogue on our shared vision for higher education. Let me begin this conversation by saying the circumstances are far different from the ones that led to A Nation at Risk. Rather than facing a "tide of mediocrity," we're starting our discussion with the finest system of higher education in the world--the very best.

Our decentralized system has empowered students with a wide range of options, from large universities to community colleges to vocational and technical schools and from public institutions to private and religious ones. These schools compete for the best students here and abroad, and every year hundreds of thousands of students from around the world come to America to take advantage of these opportunities. The system has helped spread our democratic ideals abroad and strengthen them here at home. It has helped America become the center of innovation and the world's leading economic and political power. More importantly, it has given millions of Americans the chance to realize their potential, live the American dream, and contribute in the public and private sectors.

As I said in Charlotte last month with Governor Hunt, I've convened this commission to ensure that America remains the world's leader in higher education and innovation. We are at a crossroads. The world is catching up. For example, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, among young adults, Canada, Japan, Korea, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all have higher college graduation rates than we do.

And we're not keeping pace with the demand for skilled labor in the new high-tech economy. In 1970, America produced more than 50 percent of the world's science and engineering doctorates. But if current trends continue, by 2010, we will produce only around 15 percent. China now graduates more engineers than the United States, Japan, and Germany combined.

As a result, U.S. high-tech companies are seeking employees abroad, not just because they can be paid less but also because they are often more skilled and more motivated. These companies are not just following the money. They're also following the brains. As Tom Friedman says in his bestseller The World Is Flat, our students are facing an education and ambition gap, and they're on the wrong side.

Or as the president and CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, flatly put it, "We are not competitive." Our students need better critical thinking skills and better training to compete in a world where what you know means much more than where you live.

In today's global economy, about 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education. And on average, college graduates earn almost twice as much as workers with just a high school diploma. Meanwhile, less than a third of Americans have bachelor's degrees. In other words, a college education is more important than ever, and too few Americans, especially too few African-Americans and Hispanics, have one.

As a nation, we've always answered the call to extend the promise of higher education to more Americans. It's part of our nation's commitment to expand the American dream. And the federal government has helped pave the way with farsighted leadership at critical points during our history.

  • In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, creating land-grant colleges to meet the needs of an increasingly industrialized nation.

  • In 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill, providing millions of returning servicemen with the chance to attend college.

  • When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower responded with an unprecedented national investment in math and science education and research that secured America's place as the world's leader in innovation.

  • And during the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson helped make the dream of college more affordable for millions of students by signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which is again before Congress for reauthorization as we speak.

As we prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Higher Education Act next month, we must look to the future--10, 20 years down the road. What legacy will we leave? Today there is no Sputnik to galvanize America into action, but the need for national leadership is no less urgent.

As taxpayers, we all have a stake in our higher education system. Many people don't realize that federal dollars, including funds for research, make up about one-third of our nation's total annual investment in higher education. By comparison, the federal government's investment in K-12 education represents less than 10 percent of total spending.

But unlike K-12 education, we don't really ask many questions about what we're getting for our investment in higher education. And as a result, we're missing valuable information on how the system works today and what can be improved. For instance, at the U.S. Department of Education, we can tell you almost anything you want to know about first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, non-transfer students. The trouble is that over half of today's college students are nontraditional students.

This absence of good, sound data makes it difficult to set policy at the federal, state, and institutional levels. We often end up having to take "a wait and see" approach. We spend the money and hope for the best. And because we typically never follow up, it actually becomes "a wait and never see" approach. We make small fixes with programs to emphasize key areas, but we don't think strategically about the bigger picture. We can't afford to leave the future of our nation's higher education system to chance.

It's time to examine how we can maximize our investment in higher education, including our federal dollars. We all have a responsibility to make sure our higher education system continues to spur innovation and economic growth and gives more Americans the chance to succeed in the new knowledge economy.

A critical part of that depends on us doing a better job preparing students for college. A recent study from ACT found that less than half of high school students graduate ready for college-level math and science. That's why President Bush and I are supporting high school reform that focuses on core subjects like reading, math, and science--to help more students graduate ready for college. We've already seen what a difference high standards and accountability have made for our younger students, and now we must extend those same principles to our high schools.

As we improve the quality of a high school education, more and more students will graduate ready for college. Our higher education system needs to have a place for these students if they choose to continue their education. We should send students a clear message: If you work hard in school, you can go to college--regardless of how much money you or your family has.

It's time to have a discussion on how we can meet rising enrollment numbers and new economic demands. So I ask you to focus on four key areas in your work: accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality. Please address questions such as:

  • How accessible is higher education? And who will be the college student of tomorrow?

  • Why is the cost of college rising so rapidly and how can we make college more affordable?

  • How well are institutions of higher education preparing our students for the workforce of the 21st century? Will our students have the skills to be leaders in the public and private sectors? How do we know what we're getting for our investment in higher education?

  • And how can we ensure America remains the world's leader in innovation and research?

I have asked you to submit a final report to me by August 1 of next year with specific findings and recommendations. As you all know, in recent years, there have been many good reports and studies on different aspects of higher education produced by groups such as the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education, the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, and the Council on Competitiveness. It's time to review this work and build on the results. We must take stock of where we stand and move forward.

I recently dropped off my oldest daughter at college to begin her freshman year. It was the end of a long process that started with me thumbing through college guides at the bookstore for information. As a mom, I know parents and students have questions about higher education. Choosing a college isn't like buying a car or booking a vacation. It's one of the most important decisions families and young adults will ever make--not to mention maybe one of the most expensive.

At dinner tables across the country, families are talking about how much college costs and whether it will be available for their children. We must address these concerns, and we will expand this conversation to ask what we, as a nation, want from our fine system. What do we Americans expect from our shared investment in higher education?

We all have a role to play in the private and public sectors as well as at the federal, state, and community levels. I need your honest advice and leadership on this issue. Throughout our history, we have supported and strengthened higher education as a way of expanding the promise of the American dream. And together with your help, I know we will continue to strengthen that great promise.

Thank you.



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