The Secretaries of Education

Monday, March 22, 2021 - Former Secretaries of Education Margaret Spellings and John King join Jeff and Michael to discuss their views about the new administration in Washington, DC and what they hope is on the horizon for higher ed policy. High on their list? A return to normalcy and support for the neediest students.

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Transcript of "The Secretaries of Education"

Michael Horn:

Hey, Jeff, with a new administration in Washington, there always comes a host of new regulations for higher education, but also new faces who are behind those regulations. And to make sense of the new administration's priorities, I always find it helpful to return to some familiar faces who have been in the so-called room where it happens.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. Michael, I'm on the same page, which is why it's an honor for us today to host two former secretaries of education. Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served in the George W. Bush Administration, and Secretary John King, who served in the Obama Administration.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. So Michael, as we've discussed, we always don't dedicate a lot of time on this podcast to policy questions. But with the change in administrations and Miguel Cardona officially confirmed as Secretary of Education, the role the federal government plays will have a significant impact on the future of higher education.

Michael Horn:

Exactly my thoughts, Jeff. And it's a big reason why we're dedicating a second episode in this season of Future U to this topic. And what I'm also excited about is that, in keeping with our episode, that featured Alison Griffin and Julie Peller, we're featuring two individuals who hail from the two main political parties. So it's a bi-partisan episode.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. Not just any individuals, Michael.

Michael Horn:

Okay. So fair point Jeff. We get to have not one but two Secretaries of Education on today's show. And for those who don't know, Secretary Margaret Spellings served as Secretary of Education in President George W. Bush's Administration, but she was also the Chief Domestic Policy advisor at the White House during President Bush's first term. And among other roles since then, she has served as the President of the University of North Carolina system.

Jeff Selingo:

Yes. And secretary John King served as President Obama's Secretary of Education, but was also previously New York State's Commissioner of Education. And he's currently the President and CEO of the Education Trust. Secretary Spellings, Secretary King, welcome to Future U.

Secretary John King:

Thanks so much.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Thanks. Great to be here.

Jeff Selingo:

Great.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Always with my friend, John.

Jeff Selingo:

So before we get into specific policies and regulations and dear colleague letters, negotiating rule making and the like, I think we want to start with both of you more on a structural level, right? Each White House runs education policy differently, even within an administration, that can change based on who in different seats. Sometimes the locus of policymaking power is really inside the Department of Education, but sometimes it resides more in the White House.

Jeff Selingo:

And there were initially several reports that in the Biden Administration, the locus of power for education might sit more in the White House, but that seems like it might've been more of a K-12 narrative. How do you both think about this balance and see the shaking out in the current administration? And really, what are the pros and cons of both approaches for our listeners? Or what advice would you give between the White House and the Education Department? And secretary Spellings, let's start with you on that.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Well, having served for the first four years of the Bush Administration at the White House and the second form of the department, I do have a perspective on that. And that is, that on day one of that administration, any administration, you've got to build your government, you've got to build your team. And so the first mission of the department is to get staffed, to create the team around you that are going to be able to carry the ball and do implementational things. And as such, the policy locus of course is going to be in the White House. You don't have to go through Senate confirmation of the staff there and so forth.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

And as President Biden has done and like President Obama and President Bush did, you want people who know you and who know what you're about, and who've been with you on the campaign trail and have that playbook. And so I think it's right and it's proper for the White House to be calling those plays in early days while the department of Ed gets staffed, gets ready, gets focused on what it will take to implement things that are going to come down the pike from the Congress, and that of course will be true here in a matter of days.

Secretary John King:

I agree with Margaret. And the thing I'm going to add is that I think the Biden Administration is fortunate in having a great team at the White House and the department who've worked together before. So you've got Carmel Martin and Catherine Lhamon at the White House on the Domestic Policy Council who know these issues very well, and both of whom were at the department during the Obama Administration. And then you've got James Cawl who has been named as under secretary who was on the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House. And so we'll bring to the department the perspective of having served on the White House team leading higher ed policy. So I think they're well positioned to work very productively together. They have a big agenda immediately on both the regulatory side, which will require a lot of work at the department, and on the congressional side which will require a lot of work at the White House. So I'm glad they have a strong team ready to go.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

And you know what strikes me if I could just add to that quickly is these are people that we all know and have worked with for many years. Whether you agree or disagree, these are pros. They know how to get stuff done. And I'm excited and I consider a lot of them friends, as I know you do, John.

Secretary John King:

Absolutely.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. I think that's a big feature of this White House, right? It's people who've been there before who know how the machinery works, who know how the bureaucracy works, who know how to work with Congress and so forth. And as you both look ahead to the next four years, I'm curious before we get into their agenda, what are you both hoping the focus will be out of the administration on higher education policy? And what would you like to see in other words? And secretary King, let's start with you on this one.

Secretary John King:

Sure. Well, I'll tell you three things that are at the top of my list. One is restoring the department's role as a champion of civil rights and equity. That will mean increasing the capacity of the office for Civil Rights, but it will also mean revisiting some of the regulatory steps we took to make sure students are protected against particularly predatory for-profit higher ed institutions. So that's one. Two, I am hopeful that we'll see, as President Biden talked about during the campaign, a doubling of Pell. If we see a doubling of Pell Grants, that will greatly increase the affordability of college and access to college for low-income students.

Secretary John King:

I always point out to folks, the Pell grant in 1980 accounted for about 80% of the costs of a public four year college. Today, it's about 28%. So doubling Pell would be a good step towards addressing college affordability. And then the third piece is, we really need a completion agenda. We have too many Americans who start college, don't finish. They end up with a debt and no degree, and they're stuck. And we need an agenda that gets institutions focused on completion that shifts how we think about funding in higher ed to really incentivize and reward completion, especially for historically underserved students.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

I would stipulate all of that and agree, and say that we need much better connectedness between the needs of our employer, community, our workforce, and the supply that is coming from our universities, community colleges and all manner of providers, more and more employer based, or [inaudible 00:08:09] or whatnot. And so, that means we need better information, more transparency, incentives around completion, and much greater alignment in programs that are run by the department of education and the department of labor. And there may be some interesting ways to get that done, whether it's through an infrastructure bill that start to build out greater capacity in particular key parts of our workforce, like health or cyber or advanced manufacturing, whatever.

Michael Horn:

Got you. And I'm curious about actually another dynamic of this, which is how administrations relate to each other across time. And specifically, I think it's fair to say that a big piece of higher ed regulation in the last couple of administrations and perhaps now going on three administrations has involved a pendulum of sorts, where regulations swing somewhat dramatically back and forth between opposite poles on a variety of issues. From title nine and discrimination concerns to gain for employment borrower, defense regulations, regulation of the for-profit institutions, you mentioned Secretary King. And I'm just curious, your perspective on how healthy is it for leaders of institutions trying to manage in this regulatory environment? And if it's not healthy, what's it going to take to break this pendulum cycle? Secretary Spellings, let's start with you.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

I'm not sure I really agree with the thesis. I hate to tell you.

Michael Horn:

No. Great.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

I do think, with frankly the last four years as being a big exception, honestly. I think there was... We were all in the same neighborhood, whether you're talking about the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration or the Obama Administration around closing the achievement gap, access ,affordability. When I hear John King talk about doubling the Pell Grant, I feel like he's talking... It's George W. Bush. And so on the biggest things, there has been a lot of alignment until this pause we had over the last four years around some of those things. And frankly, I think there was a real under-leveraging of the importance of the federal role and the department of education. But I think, as we've said a minute ago, the Biden Administration knows how to use that bully pulpit, and knows how to use those tools.

Michael Horn:

Secretary King, what's your perspective?

Secretary John King:

I agree with Margaret. I think the Trump Administration was just an aberration, thank goodness, from my perspective. And I would add then I think there's actually really good congressional history of bipartisanship. If you look at what happened in December... Now, of course, Lamar Alexander was their leading [inaudible 00:10:55] effort. But in December we saw a repeal of the ban on Pell grants for incarcerated students. This was a priority for us in the Obama Administration, something that many Republican members of Congress Champion, that's a good sign. Senator Alexander led on removing question 23 from the FAFSA, which related to drug convictions, again, an important, from my perspective, equity move, but also simplification of the FAFSA, which was a long shared bipartisan priority. So I'm actually quite hopeful that from a congressional perspective, we'll see continued bipartisan collaboration around higher education.

Jeff Selingo:

So as we wrap up here, we'd like to do enlightening round with your personal quick takes on a set of issues that are hot right now in higher education, particularly. So let's start with the stimulus, right? How much more, and should it go to institutions or students? Let's start with you Secretary King and then Secretary Spellings.

Secretary John King:

Okay. I feel really good about the $1.9 trillion proposal from the administration. My hope is that when we get past that stimulus, we can then start to talk about some of the longterm structural work that's needed. That's why I raised doubling Pell. Certainly debt forgiveness, I think, ought to be a part of that conversation, investments in innovation, including the employer partnerships that Margaret described. I hope we see this stimulus is just the start, not the finish.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

I agree with that. And I think in the short run, our institutions need to be shored up from the additional cost that they've incurred and from the gaps and in attendance and enrollment, and literally just COVID related crisis issues. But I wouldn't want us to do things that mitigate against our need for better transparency, greater connectedness with your higher education experience and its applicability into real life in particular the workforce. And so, I get very worried about things with all debt forgiven. I don't want to disempower our consumers from making very smart financial and educational choices for their own futures.

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Margaret, you just gave us a preview of what's to come then, because that was my next question, because it's a big topic right now. Probably most heavily debated topic, at least in my feeds on Twitter and Facebook and everything that's around student loan forgiveness. Should the Biden Administration forgive student debt? And how expansive should that be for everyone less than 10,000? What are your thoughts, Secretary Spellings?

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

I just have to say, we need to stick to our knitting and look at things like Pell, where we know those dollars go right to the people who need them the most around places like public universities largely, where they are going to get a great bang for their buck. These blanket proposals that don't really recognize fully the power of the decision-making, good and bad, that consumers have made, I think is a mistake. There are better ways for us to address affordability.

Michael Horn:

That's where where I would differ somewhat, is I would say we should not have allowed the Pell grant to erode in the way that it has in terms of the cost of college. I do want to try to look back and think about those low income, low wealth borrowers, who are now saddled with debt that can't manage, because we didn't make the investments we should have in Pell earlier. So I think that $10,000 at the Biden Administration as talked about as a good start. We have a lot of borrowers with relatively small amounts of debt. But for them, it's insurmountable and an obstacle to getting their lives back on track. And I would like us to think beyond that 10,000 in terms of issues of wealth and the racial wealth gap. We know that we have a significant number of students of color who borrowed more. And we should be thinking about ways to examine wealth as we go beyond that $10,000.

Jeff Selingo:

Okay. So just a couple more here. Short short-term program, should we allow federal financial aid to be used for less than sub-degree programs? Secretary King, we'll start with you and then Secretary Spellings.

Secretary John King:

I think now the data are not great on short-term programs. But there are some impressive anecdotes. So what that suggests to me is if we do end up doing something around short term, there needs to be very, very strong guard rails around outcomes. Do folks get jobs? Can they pay off what they owe? Are those good jobs that allow them to advance in their careers? And that accountability piece can't be forgotten in our rush to try to create new programs that are tightly aligned with employment.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

And I would say that that's the kind of thing that I think could be an interesting innovation that might come through an infrastructure program, with new money around things that are very much workplace aligned and allow us to use those resources for badging and micro-credentials and things like that, that are short of full credential and degree programs. So anyway, I'm intrigued by it. I think we'll eventually get there, but we're not there yet. And as John rightly says, the data is not terribly compelling at the moment.

Michael Horn:

Got you. So last one for both of you, as we wrap up, which is higher ed act reauthorization. Will it happen? And what are the key provisions that you would like to see in it? Secretary King, you get to go first.

Secretary John King:

I think it's certainly possible. I think we've got leadership in the Senate committee that has the potential to move forward in a bipartisan way. Same action on the House side. So I think it's possible. To me, the key question will be, are we willing to move the sector towards greater accountability for outcomes? Do folks get jobs? Do they actually graduate? This has been perhaps Margaret's life's work. Hopefully, this is the moment where Congress catches up with Margaret's life's work.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

And yours. I would hope so too, because I think the relationship and the chemistry between Senators Murphy, Murray and Burr is good and productive and we could get it done before he leaves office. I do think because of these other vehicles, infrastructure, stimulus and whatnot, there's a lot of way to get higher ed policy done in ways other than reauthorization. And we will.

Michael Horn:

That's a hopeful note from both of you. And just really appreciate you both joining us on Future U. It's been an honor to have you both.

Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Thank you.

Michael Horn:

And we'll be right back on Future U.

Speaker 1:

Support for this podcast is provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is committed to preserving and expanding educational opportunity for today's students now more than ever. Learn more at postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org, and by Nelnet Campus Commerce. Nelnet Campus Commerce delivers a secure integrated payment experience for higher education. The payment solutions offered include payment plans, giving students an affordable payment option for current and past due accounts. Payment plans can be easily tracked by students in your institution's ERP interface. Research shows that students who utilize a payment plan are more likely to be retained semester to semester. Learn more about the research conducted on over 500,000 student records, and how it impacted retention rates at campuscommerce.com/research.

Michael Horn:

Welcome back to Future U often energizing conversation with Secretary Spellings and Secretary King. And Jeff, big impression that I had was the same that I had when we had Alison Griffin and Julie Peller on, which was like, "Wow! That bipartisanship." And not just bipartisanship, but genuine affection and friendship for each other just comes out of that interaction. Your thoughts?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. And and definitely the friendship, right? Our listeners can't see what we saw in terms of the conversation we had a little bit before we went on the air and afterwards. But there's definitely a friendship between a Republican and Democrat there that I don't think you see anymore. But I have a slightly different take on this, Michael, is that perhaps it's just a sign of the times we live in, in terms of higher ed, right? When we think about the modern history of higher ed, we might go back to the 1960s, late 1960s in the higher education act, which is the basis for whatever we do now in higher ed. And for the most part, a higher education was a relatively stable system... And I say small system, nationally for 30, 40, 50 years.

Jeff Selingo:

But obviously over the last 10, and so really maybe closer to the end of Secretary Kings' tenure in Washington, we started to really start to see differences in how higher ed had to perform for the economy, right? We started to see a continuing huge increase in student debt obviously, completion rates that were still anemic in some ways. But more than that, it was really the huge growth in online education. The idea of more short-term credentials and other types of credentials for a very changing workforce.

Jeff Selingo:

And I guess my point is that, maybe bipartisanship is easier when the system is pretty stable and all these external forces aren't pressing down on it. And that's not to say there weren't external forces during Secretary Spellings or Secretary Kings' tenures, but there are just so much happening now that maybe this is a time when there isn't as much bipartisanship as we try to really grapple with some big changes in higher ed, and when the status quo is really pushing back against those changes. Maybe that's where the big arguments are going to come and should come for various reasons.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. You raised a point I hadn't thought about before Jeff, which is, to some degree Secretary Spellings and Secretary King come from the K-12 ed reform world. Obviously Secretary Spellings has played a significant role in higher ed since leaving as chancellor of the North Carolina system or President. But they both come from a K-12 ed reform world, where there was more bipartisanship on focusing on outcomes and aligning to the end goal, if you will. And so it's interesting because I agree with your observation, think it started to change during Secretary Spellings' time, actually, in terms of higher ed, and that they're both a little grounded, if you will, in some of these outcomes matter above all else, transparency is really important. Not just on average, but looking at demographics and underrepresented minorities who have historically been underserved. Those are core tenants for both of them that might make it a little bit easier for that bipartisanship to exist, I guess, between their camps, if that makes sense. [crosstalk 00:22:46] Does that resonate?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, it makes sense because it's, what is the purpose of higher education? And it's clear that both of them, and perhaps the tactics to get there are slightly different as we'll discuss. But its core to their idea of higher education is this idea of social mobility for both of them. It's a core tenant. And I think it's a core tenant of going back to the higher education act. And the reason why President Johnson was so focused on it was this idea of during the great society programs.

Jeff Selingo:

And so to me, now we're trying to define what social mobility really means in an era where the workforce is really changing. Obviously we're having these larger discussions about the Federal minimum wage, about debt forgiveness and things like that. So now, higher ed and its role in social mobility is playing such a bigger role in our society because we didn't think that it was really only higher ed's mission to do that. We thought that there were all these other elements in society, including by the way, K-12 education that was supposed to do that. And now it seems like a lot of the pressure, but more so higher ed is being put out there front and center in terms of this idea of social mobility.

Michael Horn:

But Jeff, hearing you talk about it, there is one other thing that stood out to me, which is that, obviously both played up agreement on what they called the big issues. And they had really solid examples around those, right? Expanding Pell for the incarcerated, FAFSA simplification outcomes and workforce orientation of higher education. But I will say, at least from my perspective, at the same time, there were underlying disagreements that they didn't harp on which so tone and tenor matter, right? But there were some disagreements. And a big one that I heard is that Secretary Spellings just is not a fan of debt forgiveness of any kind, if I understood it correctly. And the suspicion that I have is that she's a little worried about turning on the spigot of dollars out of the stimulus bills to higher ed, without clear transparency strings attached to those.

Michael Horn:

And she'd rather see that money used quite frankly for Pell going forward. And it was interesting because it brought to mind something that Third Way recently released, where they were talking about the price of canceling student debt relative to other interventions you could do. And so, just as one example, they said, "If you cancel $10,000 of student debt..." Which seems like the most popular proposal at the moment. "That would cost 350 plus billion dollars. But if you doubled the Pell grant, for example, it would cost roughly $66 billion. And if you also streamlined income driven repayment, doubled the funding for HBC use, amended the borrower defense rule, established a better federal state partnership, all that together would cost 160 billion." So still significantly less than debt forgiveness.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. She also, by the way, disagreed with your contention about the pendulum swinging between different polls. What were your thoughts on that?

Michael Horn:

Okay. Before I give my thoughts, do you think I'm crazy on that? I thought it was a reasonable point I made.

Jeff Selingo:

I thought it was a totally reasonable point, but it's not often that you get to disagree with the Secretary of Education.

Michael Horn:

So fair enough. So look, I didn't fully agree with her back. They obviously both disagreed with my characterization. But, from my perspective, when President Obama came into office, there was a significant shift on how people were treating for-profits in particular. And there was a series of regulations around gainful employment, borrower, defense, but then also around title nine and gender issues and things like that, that we know the Republican party of today strongly disagrees on. And so on the one hand, I get their contention that President Trump's Administration was a bit of an aberration. And at the same time, I think, the Obama Administration carved out some very clear regulatory tents. It got largely reversed and more solidified the other way under Trump. We have a pretty strong indication. Biden is going to pull those back. And we have a pretty strong indication at least on those issues that the Republican party is not going to be thrilled by those changes.

Michael Horn:

So if, and when there's a switch and power again in Washington, I would imagine it would swing back. So I don't know. That's my sense. But as long as I'm digging my own grave here, right, in disagreeing with the Secretary of Education, I'll add one other observation, which is, I do totally agree with them both that Pell is a place where you probably can get bipartisan support. And expanding it would make a lot of sense in multiple dimensions.

Michael Horn:

But it is worth pointing out, I think, that one of the reasons why Pell no longer accounts for as great a percentage of the cost of higher ed, isn't just because Pell hasn't kept up as much as people might like. It's also that the cost of tuition, as we've discussed, have ballooned far faster than inflation. And so, it's part of why I'd like to see more supply opened up in exchange, right, for outcomes based or values based regulations, but to new providers that could disrupt the traditional models of higher ed and lower costs. And I'd love to see people playing a little bit more. Not just with the, stick with your knitting, that Secretary Spellings talked about, but with lifelong learning savings accounts so that we wouldn't create pricing floors for tuition, and we would give students more of a sense to shop for the best value that makes sense for them. But those are my two cents. I'm curious, your take.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. And I think we talked a little bit about the higher education act as well.

Michael Horn:

Yeah.

Jeff Selingo:

They seemed way more optimistic about reauthorization than I think I am at this point, given the log jam. I think we're about to see in Washington now that the third coronavirus relief package has been signed by the President. Now, the one thing that may act in the favor of going big on HEA rather than the small little incremental steps that we've taken around reauthorization over the last couple of years. And I think it was when Julie and Alison were on the show recently. There was some disagreement, I think about the last big higher education reauthorization. But we're awhile from it, is that we have a first lady clearly who has higher education on her mind.

Jeff Selingo:

We have James Coval now who's going to be in the education department who has a long history in higher ed and particularly just from the Obama Administration previous to this. So there's a lot of experienced hands or people that care about higher ed in a way. Even without Senator Alexander, for example, anymore in the Senate, I still think that there are people around that probably want to go big. And so, I think that perhaps maybe that's why we should be more optimistic about higher education authorization coming up.

Michael Horn:

Great set of points, Jeff. And maybe that optimism will be warranted. It's not what I'm hearing either, but I think we're going to leave it there and leave our reactions anyway there, and turn to one final segment on our show, where we get to engage with our listeners. And Jeff, you posed a question on a past episode of Future U about what Congress should focus on in the next two years? Obviously relevant to the conversation we just had around HEA. And one response came in from Dr. Adrian King, from Toledo, Ohio, who said, "Access, access, access." And I will say, if Pell is expanded, you will get your wish on that. So stay tuned. But we also got a question over Twitter, Jeff, that I'd love to pose to you. Which is, if you could take over as university President for a year, which university would you choose?

Jeff Selingo:

Well, I think probably a lot of people would say, well, I'll take Harvard, right? Because we have a $40 billion endowment or whatever. It's an easy job for a day. Or you could just give away all the money if you were there for a day or a year. But I probably would. And we had the chancellor of the state system in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Selingo:

I'm going to go with a system here. Dan Greenstein, who was with us recently. Pennsylvania is my home state. I still have a soft spot for it. It's a dynamic state, with Philadelphia on one side and Pittsburgh on the other. But it is really struggling in many parts of it. And I really think that the regional public system, the four year public system, the past XI system, as we talked about on the recent future U episode, is poised to really help it. And it seems like a passion to save your home state a little bit. But that's probably what I would do is go there and... I don't want to kick Dan out of a job. But maybe he might want to take a year off. And that's where I would go. But how about you, Michael?

Michael Horn:

So mine is a very different answer, which is... And I don't know if I'm allowed to say it. But I'd like the University of Hawaii because why not? You'll be doing the hard work and I'll be enjoying the waves. But I think that's where we'll leave it for today. And all we have time for. It's been an absolute honor for us to host Secretary Spellings and Secretary King. And it's wonderful to be with all of you tuning in, and we will be back next time on future U. [music 00:32:52].

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