Inviting States to Innovate

November 29, 2007

With the project they launched 18 months ago, the Lumina Foundation for Education, Jobs for the Future, and the other groups involved in "Making Opportunity Affordable" have set themselves a difficult (and that may be an understatement) task: prodding higher education to become more productive -- by increasing the number of students educated without spending significantly more or diminishing quality. No sweat.

Promoting any sort of fundamental change in American higher education is a challenge, in large part because the "system" of higher education is not really a system -- it is highly decentralized, there is no national body to set policy, and there is intense (and growing) competition among institutions. Those are all positive attributes in most ways, but they combine to make concerted movement across the wide and diverse array of colleges and universities hard to come by.

The powers-that-be behind Making Opportunity Affordable have adopted a range of tactics aimed at generating momentum, notably a forthcoming grant program aimed at encouraging innovation at individual institutions, reports designed to draw public attention to key issues such as U.S. underproduction of degree recipients, and an effort to draw attention to "best practices" already tried by college leaders (highlighted in a report released Wednesday by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, two other partners in the Lumina-Jobs for the Future project.

But Making Opportunity Affordable's most significant effort, arguably -- a new grant program announced Wednesday -- recognizes the aforementioned difficulty of producing "national" movement in higher education and focuses instead on what happens at the state level, where the vast majority of college students are educated, between public four-year and two-year colleges. "States are the movable unit," Martha D. Lamkin, president of the Lumina Foundation, said Wednesday after she and other leaders of the effort had briefed officials from 42 states about the new Opportunity Grant Program, which will provide grants totaling $2 million to up to five states in which policy makers, college officials and corporate and civic leaders come together to identify their biggest productivity problems and commit themselves to solving them.

The general problem that all states (and the country as a whole) face is that the American higher education "system" needs to nearly double the number of citizens it educates by 2025 to keep pace economically and otherwise with international competitors. The cost to states of doing their share of that job, assuming no change in what it currently costs public colleges to produce a graduate, would be an extra $31 billion a year (assuming no increase in tuition borne by students), or an average increase in tuition of $2,565 a year at public four-year universities and $1,824 a year at two-year colleges (assuming no increase in state appropriations). That level of financial support is impossible, given the structural deficits most states face, said Travis Reindl, who directs the Making Opportunity Affordable project for Jobs for the Future. "Business as usual won't do it."

The none-too-modest goal of the Opportunity Grant Program, as enunciated by John Mutz, Lumina's chairman: "We'll be trying to systematically change how public higher education does business."

Under the program, states can apply by December 31 to participate in the project, and as many as 10 will have the opportunity to qualify for $100,000 "planning grants," which will be awarded to states that set a series of specific, data-driven goals, craft ways to measure their success in meeting them, and show that they have the commitment of key leaders.

After a year of planning, leaders of the project will then choose up to five states "deemed most ready to proceed" to receive grants of up to $500,000, which can be renewed up to a total of $2 million if states make sufficient progress. While the state participants would collaborate in annual "academies" in which they would share ideas -- building a "community of practice," Lumina's Lamkin said -- the primary goal is to create "stand-alone demonstrations" in the states that can serve as models for their peers, said Reindl.

While leaders of the project were careful to say that they did not want to dictate what states ought to be doing with the money, they highlighted as a potential example the University System of Maryland's Effectiveness and Efficiency initiative, in which the university redirected $40 million saved by revamping administrative functions toward redesign courses and make other changes in academic programs to accommodate enrollment growth.

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