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Spellings plans higher-ed commission

America's system of colleges and universities is famously decentralized, producing experimentation and variety but making it hard to tackle big-picture issues such as access and affordability on a national scale.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings plans to announce a major initiative today to address that problem: a commission charged with developing ''a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education," according to remarks in an advance copy of a speech she is expected to deliver at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The commission will be led by Charles Miller, former chairman of the board of regents of the University of Texas system.

Spellings has focused largely on the No Child Left Behind Act for K-12 and more recently on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But while the federal government accounts for less than 10 percent of K-12 spending, it generates about one-third of spending on higher education, through research grants and the Education Department's financial aid programs. She said she was ''not advocating a bigger role for the federal government in higher education" but said the country ''needs a coordinated approach to meet rising enrollment numbers and new economic demands."

Spellings said the commission would tackle issues such as affordability and how well colleges prepare students for the global economy. It will also probably focus on a concern that Spellings has expressed frequently: the lack of solid information about what colleges are not doing well.

'' The announcement was made amid growing concerns that the relative independence of US colleges and universities -- though a strength in many respects -- can also be a disadvantage in competing with other countries.

The commission is expected to make recommendations by next Aug. 1. Members include Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina; David Ward, president of the American Council on Education; and Jonathan Grayer, chairman and CEO of Kaplan, an education and test preparation company.

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