WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced the launching of a major review of US colleges yesterday, citing slipping US performance and scattershot decision-making.
''We make small fixes with programs to emphasize key areas, but we don't think strategically about the bigger picture," Spellings told a new team of policy advisers. ''We can't afford to leave the future of our nation's higher education community to chance."
By Aug. 1, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, headed by Spellings, must recommend how to make colleges more affordable for families, more accountable to policy makers, and more competitive worldwide.
For the meeting, which focused on funding, advisers to Spellings seemed pleased to be talking about a strategy.
''We concentrate so much on what we're really good at that sometimes we don't look far enough out into the future," said Charles Vest, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the school's former president.
Spellings chose leaders from academia, corporations and research for the panel, with officials from the departments of Defense, Energy, Commerce, and Labor.
The college review is a significant higher education initiative by the Bush administration, which has focused often on reading and math in early grades.
Part of Spellings's motivation may be personal.
She recently went through the college selection process with her oldest daughter, and realized the confusion for families.
Federal policymakers are also worried that colleges are not producing enough qualified workers and researchers, particularly in math, science and engineering. Government and independent reports have raised alarm about US competitiveness.
Commission members said that the country often does not know what it gets for its money, because data on learning in college are hard to find. The federal government commits about $80 billion a year to higher education.
''We don't really understand how money is used," said the commission chairman, Charles Miller, former head of the Board of Regents for the University of Texas.
''I think most people outside higher education don't have a clue, and my experience inside is a lot of us who govern higher education don't know a lot about it."
Spellings said leaders often have little data, leading to ''the accidental way that we make policy."