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.
Today, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings plans to announce a major initiative to address that problem: a commission charged with developing "a comprehensive national strategy for post-secondary education," according to remarks in an advance copy of a speech she planned 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.
In her first months on the job, Spellings has focused largely on the No Child Left Behind Act for K-12 and more recently on 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 ed, through research grants and the Education Department's financial aid programs.
Spellings 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 outlined the commission's instructions only generally, saying it would tackle issues like affordability and how well colleges prepare students for the global economy.
The commission will also likely focus on a concern Spellings has expressed frequently: the lack of solid information about what colleges are and are not doing well. Last week, Spellings told The Associated Press how hard it was to find good information to help her daughter, now a college freshman, compare schools.
"As you know, higher ed is not famous for its transparency," she said.
The announcement comes amid growing concerns that the relative independence of American colleges and universities — though a strength in many respects — can also be a disadvantage in competing with other countries.
"We absolutely need (the commission)," said David Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education who served in the Clinton administration. "I think it's very important that we raise to a national level and a federal level a discussion about what's happening to our competitiveness."
The Higher Education Act making its way through Congress is focused on narrow issues of efficiency in financial aid, and not large national problems like low graduation rates, he said.
"None of the countries we would like to compare ourselves to or think we're better than have as many students drop out college," Longanecker said.
The commission is expected to make recommendations by next August 1. Members include North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt; David Ward, president of the American Council on Education; and Jonathan Grayer, chairman and CEO of education and test-prep company Kaplan.