Issues That Matter: Education challenges facing the next president

In this installment of “Issues That Matter,” former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the current president of the University of North Carolina, joins “CBS This Morning” to discuss the presidential nominees’ plans for education, from pre-kindergarten to college.


The college diploma has replaced the high school diploma.

“Just like we used to think of the high school diploma as the ticket of the American dream, now that’s college. Some college,” former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told “CBS This Morning” Thursday.

Problem is, that’s a distant reality for many, and for those who make it to a college campus, it’s a financial burden for years following graduation. 

Education may not be as prime an issue in this election as it was during the Bush administration, when Spellings helped implement the administration’s key education initiative, the No Child Left Behind act. But the skyrocketing cost of higher education has received growing attention. Outstanding student loan debt totals more than $1.4 trillion and the number is rising.

And so one of the key responsibilities of the next president will be to make sure education is “available and accessible for many, many more people than ever before,” Spellings said.

“How do we do that?” asked “CBS This Morning” co-host Charlie Rose.

“Well, we make college affordable for starters,” Spelling said.

That effort has been met in North Carolina, where three University of North Carolina schools — Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University — have slashed tuition fees to a fixed rate of $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 for those from out of state. 

“That will obviously drive down growth in the student population, raise the quality of the student population and it’s a great deal,” Spellings said.  

Hillary Clinton has proposed a tuition-free college education at in-state four-year public institutions for families with incomes up to $125,000. Clinton also wants to lower student loan interest rates, while Donald Trump has proposed debt forgiveness after 15 years. 

“College is not free. Nothing is free, so it’s all a question about who’s going to pay – the individual, the state and the federal government,” Spellings said. “People need to have some skin in the game and we need to make sure that the people are showing up ready to do college work, do it effectively and efficiently and have as little debt as possible.”

Another issue with college education is that kids are taking too long – often six years – to get through school, Spellings said.

“What I mean is students get in and out of college as quickly and as efficiently as possible – in four years optimally, as opposed to six,” Spellings said. “And time is money. And so to be very efficient about what you want to do, your trajectory to get through college so that you’re not spending more time than you need to and spending more money than you need to taking courses that are, you know, extraneous.”

And preparations for that, Spellings said, must begin as early as in pre-kindergarten years. But while the federal government is a “big investor” in higher education – spending billions on Pell Grants, work study and other student loan programs – Spellings said it has invested much less on grade levels K-12.

Clinton has proposed universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. When asked if she agreed with the idea of universal pre-K, Spellings said: “Well, I think what we need to do is make sure that the pre-K we have – largely Head Start, which obviously is income-based, need-based – is the right kind of pre-K. That it’s set the table for good learning... and so I think we need to get pre-K right before we expand it.”

On the controversial Common Core standards, Trump said he’d get rid of them, while Clinton supports national educational standards. 

But Spellings explained that Common Core – now embraced by 43 states – is a “state-led effort and that it “makes sense.” 

“…it allows technology and text books and teacher development – all sorts of things to be done in a more efficient way and a more cost-effective way,” Spellings explained. “It also helps people who want military families who are moving around place to place, who lose time and get off track, because there’s no coherence in the standards and so it makes a lot of sense to me.”

Watch the full interview for more on the candidates’ positions on education, and what Spellings thinks is the most important issue that is not being discussed in the presidential campaign.