Gerald L. Baliles was most of the way through his speech Monday, delivered to nods of affirmation from the state higher education officials, public college trustees and others in the audience, when he threw the assembled a curveball.
Baliles, a former governor of Virginia and now director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, was expressing the dual views that state and national politicians too often fail to recognize the value of American higher education (as college and university officials frequently argue, usually when seeking more government funds), and that higher education as an industry is too slow to adapt to changes in society and to those it purportedly serves, as critics often accuse. Both are right, Baliles suggested to those attending Monday's meeting, "Examining the National Purposes of American Higher Education,"  co-sponsored by the UVa center and by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
“The point is that higher education is essential and that it is at risk in a time of change,” Baliles said.
That's when he dropped his punchline. The words Baliles had just finished reading were not a fresh speech about the current state of higher education; they came from a letter he had written 15 years ago to introduce a report on educational quality from the Southern Regional Education Board. If anyone attending the meeting had missed the point, Baliles's messages were clear: The issues that the group had gathered to wrestle with – concerns about affordability, access, quality and accountability that college leaders and politicians have been discussing intensely for the last few years -- have been around for ages. And relatively little progress has been made in attacking them, in part because the many words that have been spilled on the subjects have not been sufficiently transformed into actions.
Many, many more words flew among the several dozen power brokers and policy makers at Monday’s meeting in Charlottesville, on a broad range of topics, from the roles of public college trustees to immigration to the lessons that public colleges might learn from for-profit institutions.
But by day's end, a rough consensus had emerged both about the problems that were in direst need of being confronted and, perhaps more importantly, some potential solutions that the group plans to recommend in a report to emerge from the day's discussion.
At the core of that consensus was the view that states and their public colleges need to focus most directly on the need (for economic and social reasons) to essentially double the number of Americans receiving a meaningful higher education over the next two decades, and that most of that increase will have to be attained by educating lower-income and underprepared students who are least likely to get such an education now. While that idea has been part of most of the major analyses of higher education in recent years, including the final report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Monday's gathering was unusual for the extent to which it elevated that issue over others that often compete with it.
"We should be simplistic: What we're in now is a body count," said Travis Reindl, program director for Making Opportunity Affordable, a national initiative co-sponsored by Jobs for the Future and the Lumina Foundation for Education. "Find me a faculty leader, a business leader, who doesn't want more students to be throwing caps at graduation."
Going forward, added Gordon Davies, the longtime state higher education executive in Virginia and Kentucky and now a consultant, it "isn't a matter of educating the best and the brightest, it's educating the most."
As noteworthy as the gathering's focus on expanding educational attainment -- and potentially even more controversial -- was the group's assertion that to attack that problem, states will have to -- and should -- revamp their financial and other incentives to reward institutions (often community colleges and less-prestigious four-year public colleges) that now do most of the heavy lifting in educating historically underserved populations.
"What we clearly need in the country now ... is more higher education and better higher education," said David W. Breneman, a professor of education at Virginia and head of UVa's new Batten School of Public Policy and Leadership. But "we have misaligned incentives ... because the structure isn't set up right to deliver that.... We don't reward quantity expanders. Every other enterprise strives for more market share.... The key is somehow getting public money targeted on the institutions that are the mass education providers."
Breneman, Davies and other speakers described how most state funding formulas and other public mechanisms for rewarding institutions, including systems for ranking colleges, reward institutions for emphasizing research over teaching and recruiting students with stronger rather than weaker academic records. It's not surprising then, Davies said, that colleges respond to those incentives; he noted, for instance, that where the state of Virginia once had two highly selective public universities, UVa and the College of William & Mary, it now has "five universities with a smaller proportion of their students receiving Pell Grants than Yale has."
"The skills race of the 21st century will require far more differentiation" among types of institutions, said James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus and now a university professor at the University of Michigan. "Institutions will have to accept, take pride in, and commit themselves to quite different roles."
Getting institutions to alter their behavior will not be easy, Davies and others argued. States may need to change their methods for funding colleges to encourage institutions to reward institutions that educate large numbers of needy undergraduate students and focus less on research, for instance, the sort of shift that is likely to mean redistributing money away from institutions (elite flagships, for instance) that are accustomed to getting lots of it.
"What we have traditionally done to create a create world-class [research] institutions is to pick winners, but to create good quality education, you have to be equal," said Arthur M. Hauptman, a consultant who is a fixture in Washington's higher education public policy world. "When it comes to instruction, we should basically say, we want it to be good across the board, so we are not going to pay more for our highly resourced institutions to do it. That is only going to exacerbate the [existing inequality]. We should use the public purse to equalize instructional support."
More generally, state boards that are meant to coordinate the activities and missions of higher education may have to get tougher about saying No to institutions that engage in "mission creep," and to be more aggressive in putting state or regional interests ahead of those of individual colleges. "It is wrong to assume that what is good for individual universities is good for a state or for a nation," said Reggie Robinson, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, which governs six public universities and coordinates the activities of a total of 26 two- and four-year colleges in the state. "We're often confronted with the balance we try to strike between the aspirations of an individual institution on the one hand, and the broader interests of the state on the other."
A report on the group's findings and recommendations is expected in the coming months.