‘Higher Ed’s Most Important Watchdog’?

Two new governors want to raise the profile of state coordinating boards, but legislators and public flagship universities may balk at the idea.

January 25, 2019
 
Getty Images
California governor Gavin Newsom

At least two newly elected Democratic governors have vowed to highlight and strengthen the role of coordinating boards, saying they are essential to keeping state higher education systems running equitably and efficiently.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has vowed to create a new version of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, which has been defunct since 2011.

And in Colorado, Jared Polis, the new governor, formerly a longtime Democratic congressman, has vowed to strengthen his state's existing board.

In both states, the new leaders want statewide bodies to better coordinate how the various sectors of higher education -- from community colleges to research universities -- work together to serve the states' residents. Coordinating boards are often charged with deciding how to allocate limited state funds and ensuring that a state's collective postsecondary institutions are serving its interests, which sometimes put them at odds with the leaders of individual institutions like flagship research universities, which often have national and international ambitions and interests.

The latter trend is evident at the moment in West Virginia, where prominent university leaders are pushing to weaken statewide coordination.

Coordination in the West

In 2011, California's governor Jerry Brown, looking for line items to cut that didn't directly affect instruction, abolished the California Postsecondary Education Commission, calling it "ineffective." Since then the state's three public higher education systems have found opportunities to work together, for example, forging a statewide agreement that guarantees admission to the California State University system to any student who earns an associate degree at a California community college. Last April, the University of California System said community college students who complete so-called pathways course sequences will be guaranteed a spot at a UC campus -- if their grades are good enough.

Newsom, Brown's successor, said during the 2018 campaign that the three state systems could do more to work together and make education more affordable and accountable. Writing last year on the online platform Medium, he said a rejuvenated commission would “set bold statewide goals and hold institutions accountable to them.” The state, he said, needs to “expand access, improve affordability, bolster transfers and completion rates  --  and link financial incentives to clear student outcomes.”

Despite the agreements, the state’s three big systems -- the University of California System, the California State University System and the California Community Colleges -- now "operate in their own silos," he said.

California "has been flat-footed in its response to uneven income growth" that has emerged from a booming high-tech economy, Newsom said. In Sacramento, state lawmakers have “under-invested in higher education. We can and will change that,” he wrote.

Polis has said he will work with Colorado’s Legislature “to bolster the authority and resources available to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education so that it can do the job needed to save people money.”

A former tech entrepreneur who founded several institutions (including a Denver-based college that provides intensive English language instruction to international and F-1 visa students), Polis called the commission “higher ed’s most important watchdog,” noting that it helps set adequate funding levels, facilitates partnerships and increases access to academic programs that would otherwise be virtually out of reach of many students.

Elsewhere coordinating commissions may be going in the other direction: E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, in November said the state should scrap its Higher Education Policy Commission. Gee, who leads a blue-ribbon task force looking for ways to make the state’s 10 regional colleges and universities more efficient and collaborative, said the group should support a proposal to eliminate the commission and replace it with an Office of Post-Secondary Education that would give autonomy to individual boards of governors at the smaller state colleges and universities.

Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said the history of conflicts between state coordinating boards, state university governing boards and lawmakers is clear: the person who is in charge at the top often dictates what its priorities are.

“The only certainty is change,” he said.

Conflicts like those in West Virginia aren’t uncommon, especially between state officials and leaders of flagship universities, Anderson said.

“President Gee is representing his campus, but the ultimate question is: Does that jibe with the state’s purposes?” Those purposes include responding to a bid by the state Legislature to examine performance-based funding.

David Tandberg, SHEEO’s vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives, said many states are pushing for greater coordination among public institutions. He suggested that state leaders pay attention not so much to whether they’ve got a strong or weak coordinating board, in terms of statutory authority, but whether their higher education agencies themselves “have the staff to do the job we’re asking them to do. And if they don’t, we need to invest in them.”

If West Virginia eliminates the commission, it will join more than half of all states nationwide that don't have such an entity, said Aims McGuinness, a senior fellow at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Even among states that have a formal coordinating board, McGuinness said, in the "vast majority" of cases the board has evolved to do low-level work -- administering programs such as student aid or approving just a handful of academic programs. "But it’s not having much impact on anything," he said.

By relegating their coordinating boards to basic tasks, he said, states are losing out on an opportunity to do necessary, long-term strategic planning across public systems. "They may have some kind of a plan, but nobody’s paying too much attention to it."

In a state like Colorado, legislative term limits and short lawmaking sessions mean that state flagship universities' needs dominate lawmakers' time and attention. "You need some counterweight to that,” he said.

"I can understand why [Polis] would say it’s really important to have the Colorado commission have greater credibility and strength," McGuinness said. "That does not mean that these entities now need to have essentially increased regulatory authority. What they really need is a recognition that you need an entity that is really looking at the whole state."

A Long Legacy in California

For all of the criticism heaped on it by Governor Brown, the California Postsecondary Education Commission stuck around for more than half a century. Created in 1960 by the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, by 2011 the commission, though still relatively small, with 19 employees and a $1.9 million budget, endured. But Brown had other priorities.

"While I appreciate the importance of coordinating and guiding state higher education policy," he wrote in a memo vetoing the commission's funding, "I believe CPEC has been ineffective." The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office agreed, saying the commission's watchdog role had been weakened by budget cuts and poor oversight.

Brown asked the state’s three public higher education bodies to “explore alternative ways to more effectively improve coordination and development of higher education policy.”

A few lawmakers since then have pushed to bring the commission back. In 2014, Patrick Perry, the community college system's vice chancellor for technology, noted that the commission's huge database, encompassing the three state systems and dating back to 1960, hadn't been updated since 2011. He feared that the data were becoming less valuable as a result. But he said updating, managing and even accessing the data required an authorized and independent state agency that no longer existed.

In 2015, Ken O’Donnell, an administrator in the California State University System, told a SHEEO meeting that the commission had been viewed by many as a bureaucratic bad idea. In its absence, he said, the three systems had agreed to a handful of cooperative arrangements that included a statewide articulation agreement between the Cal State system and California Community Colleges.

But O’Donnell said the move to abolish the commission came with costs: the three systems, for instance, had to create a new entity just to sign off on a set of national standards for online and distance-learning programs offered from outside California. He also warned that not having a unified body for public colleges could pit the systems against one another in the future.

Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said that state had only recently moved to create a body with a broad purview. "There’s no single right way to govern higher education in a state," he said. "A lot depends on the particular state context and your state goals -- and your institutional setup, etc. But I would say that there are some particular advantages, some strengths, of having a strong coordinating board. The absence of it can imperil a state agenda."

Oregon's coordinating board determines how public dollars are allocated across the system. It also administers the state’s financial aid programs, including student grants.

The value of having a single entity that looks at the system "comprehensively and holistically" is that it can help a state define its goals for postsecondary education -- which can be very different from those of flagship institutions. In a big state like California, he said, that can bring huge consequences when it comes to prioritizing investments on things like capital projects.

“California was the higher education envy of the world, partly as a result of the comprehensive view that it took at one time that resulted in that California Master Plan, that elegant and comprehensive approach,” Cannon said.

Oregon created its current system in 2013, but it wasn't operational until 2015, said Cannon, a former state legislator. At the time, legislators wanted to give universities greater levels of autonomy by allowing them to report to their individual boards of trustees rather than a state chancellor and board. But critics wondered who would look out for the state system as a whole. “We need some state counterpoint to those university boards,” he said.

Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that Newsom and Polis were endorsing the role of coordinating boards. California and Colorado, he said, both have a long history of coordination across their systems. Over all, he said, lawmakers these days can hardly escape the fraught debate over higher education. “A new governor who wants to have an impact is going to look to find a way to focus on today’s issues,” he said. “Affordability, student success, efficiency, preparing students for a 21st-century work force.”

So it’s smart for states to take a new look at coordinating their higher education agendas among institutions to keep it “forward-looking” and up to date.

“These are extraordinarily challenging times for higher education,” he said, “and we need good people coming together to work … in some collaborative way.”

While separate institutions will always vie for independence, Legon said, a smart leader “can build quite a positive state structure where collaboration is the norm and it isn’t about winners and losers.”

Local Control of an Inefficient System

NCHEMS' McGuinness said the two new governors' vows to strengthen and rejuvenate their coordinating boards are “significant and promising, especially if they are doing so because of the need to really make sure that higher ed is really connected to the future of the state, of its population.”

Most state education systems, he said, face "pretty daunting financing issues" even in good times. “We’re way long past the time when you’ve got a major amount of subsidy for these institutions.”

Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System and a former Colorado lieutenant governor, said Polis has an opportunity to help community colleges compete for resources with other institutions statewide -- most notably the flagship University of Colorado at Boulder, which "has the ability to attract students from out of state -- it's the place where most folks, if they want to go to an in-state school, that's where they want to go."

The ability to attract higher-paying out-of-state students, Garcia said, brings not just more funding but more political clout. "I mean, they have a lobbying team that is much bigger than anybody else's," he said. "And so they can get things done, notwithstanding what the coordinating board may want to do as a state agency."

In theory, he said, the state's coordinating board already oversees the higher education budget for the state. But in reality the individual institutions now "come in and make their own argument for what share of that budget they should get," he said. The Legislature still retains the right, for example, to set tuition rates. But he said Polis is right to try and figure out a way to increase the board's authority.

"We developed these master plans and these strategies, and the universities could shrug [their] shoulders and say, 'It sounds cool, but we're not going to do it.' So he's just trying to figure out, 'What can we do to create a more effective system?' And the only way we can really do that is getting everybody to understand that the coordinating body has some real authority. And the questions is, 'How much, and is it even possible politically?'"

In Colorado, Garcia predicted that legislators will balk at Polis's idea, which would shift power from elected officials to gubernatorial appointees.

"I think the institutions are very protective of their own authority," he said, noting that Coloradans naturally gravitate toward local, not centralized, control.

"We don't have an efficient system," he said with a smile, "but by golly, you know local people have a say in it."

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top