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Former Education Secretary On Biden's Plan To Make College More Affordable


President Biden laid out an ambitious and expensive plan this past week that included a proposal to provide money for two years of free community college for anyone who wants it. He says this is part of his push to make America's education system more competitive.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Research shows when a young child goes to school, not day care, they're far more likely to graduate from high school and go to college or something after high school. When you add two years of free community college on top of that, you begin to change the dynamic.

MARTIN: The proposal, known as the American Families Plan, will also provide increased Pell Grants - that's financial assistance for college students with lower incomes - and two years of assistance for students at historically Black colleges and universities. As you might imagine, many education leaders praised the president for a historic commitment to higher education in general and community colleges in particular, where enrollments last fall declined 10%. That's according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But others have doubts about whether this is the best approach, saying that community college is already affordable.

Recognizing that there is a range of views on this, we looked for a voice with a range of experiences in education, so we called Margaret Spellings. She served as the U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. And she was president of the University of North Carolina. She is now the president and CEO of Texas 2036. That's a nonpartisan think tank in Texas.

Madame Secretary, Madame Chairman, thank you so much for joining us.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Thanks, Michel. Great to be with you again.

MARTIN: What are your initial thoughts about President Biden's message, which frames affordable education as a mechanism to compete globally?

SPELLINGS: Well, I think we all know that developing our people, that human capital, is our No. 1 asset. And so there's - I commend that priority, for sure. I think there are some - lots of things to like in the plan and a few things that are worrisome that I think really - there may be better ways to achieve these goals of access and affordability and connectedness into the marketplace. So we'll talk about that.

MARTIN: Well...

SPELLINGS: I'm a fan of the Pell Grant, less so the free aspects here because like your mother told you, nothing is free.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit more about what you like and what you don't like. You're a fan of the Pell Grants. why?

SPELLINGS: Well, it's just great public policy and has been for a long time. We target aid to those who need it the most. We empower consumers with purchasing power, if you will, so that they can take that voucher, that wallet of money to an institution of their choice. It also requires that our institutions, be they community colleges or four-year institutions, you know, keep that consumer in mind and meet their needs, be transparent with them or more transparent about what their offerings are and what the value of it is in the marketplace.

And so I like that Pell Grant. But when we, you know, give out things for free, we support people who are not necessarily providing those good opportunities. I mean, not all community colleges or universities are created equal. And so we want to reward those that are doing the right thing by students and employers and the market, and we want to challenge those that aren't.

MARTIN: So let's talk a bit more about community college then. The White House is saying that the money would benefit up to 5.5 million students. And supporters of this say that it would obviously ease the burden from low-income and working-class students. But other people say that low-income students actually perform better at four-year institutions. And I'm not sure - quite sure why that might be, so maybe you can help us with that. And they also say that community college is either free or low-cost in many states, so this doesn't really change the burden that much. What's your take on that?

SPELLINGS: And I largely agree with those views. You know, when students are well-matched in four-year institutions, they are more likely to complete on time in a comprehensive university than they are in a community college. Frankly, we love our community colleges, but there's a - it's a real mixed bag on effectiveness and efficacy and who really provides something of value to the student.

Secondly, I think, you know, we don't want to disincent (ph) smart states and strategic policymakers at the state level who've done a lot to invest around affordability and, you know, innovative programs - places like Tennessee, places like North Carolina, where they have the NC Promise at three institutions. So, you know, these one-size-fits-all kind of federal approaches really have a good many unintended consequences.

MARTIN: Talk to me about this completion rate issue. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the six-year completion rate at community colleges has dropped in the last year. And only 40% of students at two-year public colleges complete their degrees in six years. What's your take on why that might be? And would making tuition free, even if it's already low-cost - I mean, if it's low-cost but it exceeds your income or it exceeds what you can pay for, it doesn't matter how cheap it is if it's still more than you can pay. Would making tuition free address this problem?

SPELLINGS: Well, first of all, in terms of the completion rates and efficacy and all of that of the experience, you know, flooding the zone and putting more money into systems who are not serving students very well is not where I would start. I think we want to keep the pressure on for institutions, community colleges and universities alike, to improve their offerings and to get those completion rates better.

So - and I think the reasons for - that completion has fallen off are because life has intervened with a lot of the students that enroll there. You know, and during my time in North Carolina, I learned that, you know, things like a broken car or a sick child or, you know, seemingly small matters can really derail an entire semester. And certainly, we've seen those sorts of challenges in the pandemic year for families. And they just get off track and drop out and, you know, never to be seen again or, you know, lose time, spend money with very little to show for it at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Well, obviously, this is a rich topic. And we have sort of limited time today, so I hope we'll talk again about this. As someone who's had to get big education initiatives through Congress, what would you say is the key to that?

SPELLINGS: Well, that's why I'm a fan of the Pell Grant approach and the support for institutional aid like the president has offered up for HBCUs. And I think there will be broad bipartisan support for that. But, you know, when we disincent states and start putting one-size-fits-all, you know, federal regulations around policies like this, I think it's much tougher sledding.

MARTIN: That was former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. She is currently serving as the president and CEO of Texas 2036. Madame Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

SPELLINGS: Michel, always a pleasure. Thanks for everything you do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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