The Role of the Regions

July 16, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS -- If the United States is to have even an outside chance of reaching the goal that President Obama has set for college completion -- and heck, many people are still talking as though that's feasible, despite what seem like impossibly long odds -- it will take enormous work, and it's not entirely clear who will lead.

The federal government has primarily an exhortative role, both with the bully pulpit and potentially with financial incentives, such as the Obama administration has done with Pell Grant increases and money for state data systems. But there's only so much that can be done from Washington, both because of structural limitations and because neither state nor institutional leaders want the feds too much in their business.

Most of the heavy lifting on many key issues related to college completion at the public colleges that the bulk of students attend -- student access, tuition setting, allocation of operating funds, pruning of programs and collaboration among institutions -- will be done at the state level, and some governors and state higher education leaders are hard at that work. But leaving the job to 50 states will mean that things get done in 50 different ways, and result in scattershot progress. And as state lines and other geographic barriers mean less and less to students following "swirling" postsecondary paths, the variation will make that flow difficult.

This week's annual meeting of the State Higher Education Executive Officers group spotlighted one other group that could play a significant role in bringing about change in higher education, yet avoid both the heavily centralized approach of the federal government and the inconsistency of state-by-state reform.

At a session featuring leaders of four regional consortiums of states -- the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education -- the groups described the broad and often overlapping areas in which they were working on the completion and productivity agendas with their member states. (The current work they described was in addition to, but often supporting, their traditional missions of bolstering the status of -- and prodding progress in -- higher education in their regions.)

Many of the efforts the regional consortiums are undertaking reinforce priorities that are also shared by the federal government or by the groups' state members. The Western commission, for instance, is using a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to help four states build and ultimately weave together data systems that will follow students from elementary and secondary school through college and into the work force (a top priority of the Obama and Bush administrations).

The Midwestern compact, meanwhile, seizing on the priority that many of its member states have placed on the need to educate or retrain adults, aims to build a "credential repository" that will allow students to collect their earned academic credits in one centralized location to make it easier for multiple institutions to evaluate their previous work, ultimately to smooth transfer to one of them.

Some of the regional consortiums' initiatives reflect the distinctive needs or traits of the areas -- the New England board is paying specific attention to the financial viability of private higher education, given the vast number of independent institutions in that part of the country, for example, and WICHE has engaged the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education on a project aimed at bolstering the representation of minority and low-income students in Western states, which have lagged in that area.

But not surprisingly, given the commonality of the issues facing higher education around the country, there was enormous overlap in the problems on which the regional associations are working, and to some extent on the solutions they were pursuing.

Most are working on joint purchasing to help their states and their institutions save money, many of them are figuring out how to help inform an anticipated wave of new governors elected in November about the ins and outs of higher education, and all of them are gearing up to work with K-12 officials in their member states to incorporate the new Common Core Standards, which they hope will help more students come into college prepared and ultimately reduce the high rate of remediation virtually all states face. (The Common Core Standards are a focus of this meeting, and the SHEEO group will, today, hold its first-ever joint meeting with the Council of Chief State School Officers to discuss strategies for implementing the standards.)

While the changes in delivery of higher education have in many ways diminished the regional nature of higher education, the panelists acknowledged, a regional focus still matters when it comes to such things as job markets, economic development, higher education accreditation, and institutional collaboration, said Jack Warner, executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents.

His state sees enough value and potential in the role of regional collaboratives, Warner said Thursday, that it followed Yogi Berra's famed advice about what to do when you come to a fork in the road ("Take it"). Given its location, South Dakota had the option of joining either the Midwestern compact or the Western commission; it belongs to both.

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