Sara Tucker, Disappointed But Determined

In podcast interview, the top federal higher education official discusses the status of college reform efforts and her search for "creators" instead of "critics."
August 9, 2007

In December, as she began what promised to be an intense two-year stint as the federal government's top higher education official, Sara Martinez Tucker eyed the challenge in front of her with a mix of excitement, enthusiasm and determination. In an interview at the time about her ambitious agenda, Tucker described the department's goals for carrying out the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, on which she served; the tight time window available to accomplish her expectations; and her belief that college leaders and other key parties could work collaboratively with department officials on that agenda. "I wouldn’t be commuting from San Francisco," she said of her weekly travel to be with her family, "if I didn’t believe in these two years we can get a lot done."

Now, eight months later, Tucker remains determined, doggedly so, and confident that Secretary Margaret Spellings's campaign to change higher education has changed the public policy conversation in Washington and, more importantly, captured the imagination of the public. In a new interview (a podcast of which can be heard here), she says that Spellings has "hit a home run" in stimulating the "national dialogue" she set out to create. She defends the department's much-maligned work overseeing the federal student loan programs. And she urges Congress, in the budget and student aid legislation it is now considering, to focus the new funds it would provide on the low-income students who need it most.

"[President Bush's 2008 budget proposal] set a high standard with 90 percent [of new funds] going to Pell, and 99.7 percent going to needy students still in school," Tucker says. "I'd like for [Congress] to get as close as possible to the president’s budget."

But as much as Tucker continues to express her sense of the possible, it also appears that her initial enthusiasm and optimism have been dampened by higher education and Washington politics, and displaced to a large extent by new impressions and emotions: Frustration and anger about what she says is the tendency of some college officials and journalists (including this one) to misrepresent the department's policies on accreditation and student learning outcomes. Disappointment that Congress has taken steps to limit the department's regulatory authority. Shock at how the agency's efforts to improve higher education have been wrongly perceived as a threat to damage it. And, ultimately, defiance.

"I guess what I’m stunned beyond belief [about]," Tucker says, "is that people believe we had some sort of agenda that wants to destroy the American system of higher education, and that's been real disconcerting."

Progress on Priorities

By any measure, the eight months since Tucker became U.S. under secretary of education have been event-filled, verging on chaotic. The Education Department, with Tucker leading the way, has engaged in an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to carry out the recommendations of the Spellings Commission through regulatory and other means. It sponsored national and regional summits of educators and the public to build support for the commission's work. It juggled four separate negotiations aimed at producing new regulations for federal education programs or policies, including on student loans and accreditation. It convened a behind-the-scenes meeting of experts to discuss ways to revamp the federal financial aid system. It reshaped the staff and membership of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the education secretary on accreditation issues.

And at the same time, department officials have faced significant distractions, in time and energy, from the months of controversy stemming from the student loan investigations begun by New York's attorney general and Democrats in Congress, who have gone out of their way to put the department on the defensive.

In a wide-ranging interview in her office in downtown Washington, Tucker says she believes the Spellings Commission has had a significant impact so far, resonating with the public's deep concern about accessibility to the increasingly necessary credential of a higher education. Getting outside Washington for a series of regional summits and "town hall" meetings with parents and students and with rank and file college officials in June reinforced for Tucker and her team, she says, how high the stakes are to make college more affordable and colleges more effective and efficient.

Tucker describes the "absolute terror in the faces of parents" when they talked to her about how to pay for their children's education. She also says she was pleasantly surprised by the frequency with which individual faculty members and campus officials department leaders met on their "listening tour" expressed support for what the department was doing and hunger to be a part of the solution. "They told us, just don't listen to the 'inside the beltway' conversation -- listen to us ... deal directly with us," Tucker says. "There's a hunger for leadership out there."

Tucker's implication is that what department officials heard as they traveled was an antidote to the negativism and nay-saying that she and Spellings have heard too consistently from Washington's higher education associations and others as the department has sought to carry out the work of the Spellings Commission. As Tucker lists the accomplishments she believes the Bush administration has achieved so far -- proposing a hefty increase in the maximum Pell Grant in the president's 2008 budget, prodding accrediting agencies and colleges to pay more attention to the learning outcomes of students, pushing to simplify the process by which students apply for financial aid -- she notes that in many of the cases, higher education's Washington lobbyists have criticized them. (College leaders objected, for instance, to the department's decision to fund the Pell Grant increase in part by cutting other aid programs for students.)

"I'm stunned by the number of people who have attempted to shed light on the Spellings Commission and the commission's recommendations as federal intrusion," Tucker says. She says that one accrediting agency -- which she declines to name -- went so far as to try to "hijack" the commission's town hall meeting for parents in New Hampshire in June by busing in "professionals" who hewed to a highly critical party line. (Officials of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the primary accreditor in that region, said they were unaware of any such effort.)

Asked if she was heartened by signs that some higher education groups and leaders appear to have gotten behind the commission's agenda -- for example, the voluntary accountability system embraced by the two major associations of public universities, and efforts by private liberal arts colleges to experiment with new ways of measuring their students' learning -- Tucker offers a qualified Yes. "I know there are a lot of people out there saying, 'We were on our way' " to tackling the the affordability and efficiency problems in higher education, Tucker says, but in the years she spent at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund before becoming under secretary, "I wasn't seeing much" in the way of progress.

"To the extent that there are efforts outside the department that are voluntary, whether it's what state legislatures or what governors are doing," or initiatives sponsored by college groups, "I don't know that a lot of these efforts ... would have started without" the commission's prodding, Tucker says. "I'd give Secretary Spellings all the credit myself ... Whether it’s they’re afraid that we'll do it to them so they’re going to do it first, or because they got it and believe it is something that should be worked on" doesn't really matter. "The bottom line for me and for the kids I represent is, there’s action, and that’s the important thing."

Congress has also acted in recent weeks on many of the department's and the commission's priorities, and Tucker is similarly conflicted on whether the actions of lawmakers have complemented or conflicted with her own goals.

While Congress is poised to pass legislation that would redirect billions in new federal funds from subsidies for student loan providers to financial aid for students, exactly how it will do so is still up in the air. Tucker complains that the House of Representatives approach, which would funnel several billion dollars to interest rate reductions for middle income borrowers after they leave college and to create several new programs, would direct only 30 percent of its newly created funds to need-based aid for low-income students, while President Bush's budget would have directed 90 percent of its funds to the Pell Grant Program.

"My benchmark is how close they come to the standard the president set," she says, and the Senate's bill comes closer. "If we end up coming out closer to the Senate, I'm going to feel optimistic that I can find a way to drive a lot of the commission recommendations. If it’s the House side," she says, "I have real concerns."

Tucker also bristles at the steps the Senate proposes taking in legislation to renew the Higher Education Act to turn up the pressure on accrediting agencies to hold colleges accountable. The Senate approach would fall far short of what the department was prepared to push in federal rules it planned to release this summer, and Tucker says that Spellings agreed to hold back those regulations after senators agreed to talk to her about the authority they were willing to give her.

Instead, when the Senate passed its legislation, it contained provisions that would severely restrict the Education Department's ability to promulgate regulations on student learning outcomes. "I'm disappointed that commitments that were made to her were not carried out," Tucker says. "I sit back and I think ... agencies are supposed to regulate, and they're specifically saying you can't regulate on a statute. What happened to the separation of the three branches here?... The good news is that I believe we're on the right side. I'm hopeful that at the end, wisdom will prevail."

The Student Loan Distraction

Tucker knew when she became under secretary of education that many college leaders opposed some of her department's efforts, and she also had to anticipate that a Democratically controlled Congress would not necessarily be amenable to some of the Bush administration's priorities. But Tucker's work in carrying out the Spellings Commission's recommendations has undoubtedly been affected -- if not damaged -- by a tsunami she could not have seen coming: the student loan scandal, which has dominated headlines and, increasingly, the department's time and energy in recent months.

She asserts that the many hours that she and her department colleagues have had to spend responding to Congressional requests for documents and reports and answers about the agency's oversight of the loan program -- including allegations that a top department official owned stock in a lender -- "are not going to slow me down.... Us having to stop what we’re doing to put together responses, briefing the Hill ... just meant that we stayed at night to get the job done," she says.

Tucker acknowledges that some of the findings of the months-long student loan inquiry "looked terrible," and that there were "a couple things we could have done better" in overseeing the loan programs -- "You always wish you had enough early detection to tell you about it before it happened."

But she also admits to being "angry" that lawmakers have lambasted Spellings for her perceived failures when "the secretary saw things that nobody else saw and started action," including appointing a negotiated rule making committee last fall -- before the loan scandal broke -- to propose tougher regulation of college-lender relationships. Congressional and other critics have too often ignored the legal limits -- set, of course, by Congress -- on the department's ability to regulate the loan industry, Tucker says.

The department has responded to the loan scandal in part by being more open about steps it might have taken behind the scenes in the past. "Our lesson was instead of doing it quietly and respecting the dignity of the institutions we’re investigating, we’re just being a little more public about what we’re doing," she says. Does that mean the department has not stepped up its regulatory activity in response to the loan scandal?

"No, let me choose my words more carefully," Tucker says. "We can always be better. So we have instituted processes that say, How long has it been since we looked at that oversight process? Has the world changed, should be doing it differently? So where we have found mistakes, we’ve used it as a learning opportunity to say, All right, we’re going to be doing it differently."

What's Ahead

In the interview she gave upon taking office, Tucker said that her willingness to commute to Washington from San Francisco every week was a sign of how much she believed in her mission at the department. Asked in July if she was glad she took the job, she again refers to the commute, in a rare moment of letting her guard down: "Every time I get on the plane [to head back to San Francisco] I think, what the heck am I doing here?"

In a town and a job where she has learned that it is "hard to get things done," Tucker says she is increasingly dividing people into two camps: the "creators" and the "critics." She has found a hardy band, she says, of "creators who want to build things," but "a lot more people who love to criticize."

As the department prepares to shift its focus in the months ahead to finding "solutions" to the problems the Spellings Commission identified, Tucker says, she will increasingly be on the hunt for creators who want to work with her and the department and "steel myself for the critics who can't stand to see progress made."


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