Government

Arne Duncan Is Still Angling to Reward Colleges for Better Results

May 26, 2010

The Obama administration may have lost the battle in Congress for billions of dollars in new money to help improve college completion, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Wednesday that the Education Department still hopes to find funds to help colleges put innovative ideas into practice.

He said his hope is to reallocate money from other federal programs, which he didn't name, and use it to offer financial incentives to colleges that show creativity in containing costs and improving their graduation rates.

"Stay tuned," said Mr. Duncan, who dropped the hint about the effort at an "Innovation in Education Roundtable" luncheon here sponsored by the Aspen Institute and Intel Corporation. The education secretary joined an eclectic group of more than three dozen policy leaders from higher education and elementary and secondary education at the event.

The higher-education program would reward colleges' advances in educational attainment, Mr. Duncan said. "Some do a phenomenal job of developing college-completion cultures."

It was unclear what sources of funds the Education Department could tap. In the federal budget, most of the money for higher education comes in the form of aid that goes to students, not institutions or states.

The Education Department won't be acting alone. Mr. Duncan said the department is already working with the National Governors Association and its next chairman, West Virginia's governor, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, to develop college-graduation-rate goals for each state and eventually, for each institution of higher education. That kind of push is necessary, Mr. Duncan said, if the country is to meet President Obama's goal for the United States to have the world's highest proportion of residents with a college degree by 2020.

But William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the financial problems afflicting public higher education could undermine those goals. "Who's worrying about the capacity" of higher education to take in those new students? he asked at the meeting.

He said the federal government needs to play a part in promoting innovative approaches, although he, too, said he wondered from where federal funds could be reallocated. "The country can't move forward," he added, "if we don't find some different models for delivering education at our best institutions."