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Extreme Jobs: Governors' Edition
January 10, 2011 - 9:24pm

This month, we’re meeting the largest class of new governors in history. Twenty-nine will be inaugurated this month. As extreme jobs go, being governor during epic budget constraints, high unemployment, and a frail infrastructure surely tops the list.

However, this new class of governors is far from naïve about the challenges they face. Minnesota’s Mark Dayton promised a budget “that will be reasonable, balanced, and painful -- because I see no easy alternative.”

As the oldest governor at 72, California’s Jerry Brown declared: “Choices have to be made and difficult decisions taken. At this stage of my life, I have not come here to embrace delay or denial.”

Maine Governor Paul LePage won huge applause when he said, “It’s time to deliver value to our taxpayers.’’

For the next several weeks, this Statehouse Test blog will be a place to share innovative ideas governors present in their inaugural and state of the state addresses to improve postsecondary education.

As both a significant budget item and linchpin to job creation, how governors and other state leaders address postsecondary education matters more than ever. Few were surprised to see redesigning postsecondary education and job creation near the top of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ top 11 issues in 2011.

The two are inextricably linked.

By 2018, an estimated 64 percent of jobs will require some sort of postsecondary education. And, by 2025 there will be a shortage of 23 million college-educated adults in the U.S. work force if current graduation rates continue.

Incoming governors and state legislators know that jobs are portable and that the proportion of college degrees in other countries is higher than in the United States. They know higher education is key to growing our economy and creating more local jobs.

They also know it must change to bring about a more educated, prepared work force -- a change that must occur in an extraordinarily difficult budget climate. States will face more than $60 billion in budget shortfalls this year and another $50 billion in 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. With the end of the federal stimulus program, states will have nearly $40 billion less in federal funds in 2012 than they did last fiscal year. And there are few places and people left to cut.

So … what’s a governor to do? Joining the ranks of the “attainment pioneers” is a smart first step. I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working with these pioneering governors and higher education leaders in several states that have maintained a public agenda for increasing postsecondary attainment, restructuring costs and boosting academic productivity.

For example, Indiana overhauled its postsecondary funding to tie the bulk of spending to measures of student and institutional performance -- including data that show how many students complete coursework and earn degrees. The less productive institutions face deeper cuts. The new Western Governors University Indiana is an entirely online nonprofit college focused on yielding thousands more bachelor’s degrees without adding to the budget.

Maine, Nebraska, and Ohio have tackled cost drivers such as prescription drugs and pension benefits, saving hundreds of millions of dollars and minimizing tuition increases.

Complete College Tennessee is the first effort of its kind. Among other changes, it calls for the expansion of the structured, accelerated (and more productive according to McKinsey) Tennessee Tech Center model across community colleges.

Academic productivity is accelerating in this environment. States like Texas are helping students minimize the time and credits required to attain a degree and give students incentives for completing their degrees on time. Pennsylvania is offering more classes online and discontinued nearly 80 programs with low enrollments or diminished career relevance.

These states have learned that in a prolonged recession, the usual tricks (raising tuition and cutting positions) just won't work.

The agendas governors formulate in the first month of 2011 really are a test of our country’s capacity to innovate in extraordinary times. Governors have a very attentive audience on campus and off.

Please share your comments and views on the Statehouse Test under way across the nation. The next posts will discuss how leaders are dealing with tuition, access, quality, and changing demographics.

Statehouse Test is a weekly analysis of governors' inaugural, state of the state addresses and budgets related to postsecondary education. The posts are presented by Kristin Conklin, founding partner of HCM Strategists. HCM Strategists is a public policy and advocacy consulting firm dedicated to advancing innovation in health and education. As a first-generation college graduate and benefactor of policies advancing postsecondary education for low-income students, Conklin knows firsthand the difference these policies can make.


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