SANTA FE, N.M. -- State higher education leaders are a respectful bunch, so it was no surprise that Martha J. Kanter, the U.S. under secretary of education, got a warm reception when she spoke to the annual meeting of the State Higher Education Executive Officers here this week. But -- given the typical "we know better" attitude of federal officials and the history of unfunded mandates passed down to the states -- members said they could not remember the last time a federal official got the sort of impromptu standing ovation Kanter received when she ended her luncheon speech to the group.
Surely that was partly because of Kanter's down-to-earth personal style and the passion with which she delivered her message of challenge and change. It was also undoubtedly attributable to the fact that the day before, she had, in helping President Obama unveil a new community college initiative, delivered the latest in a long line of signals that the new U.S. administration values higher education and recognizes its importance to the country's future prosperity.
Perhaps most of all, though, the state leaders seemed to appreciate that Kanter, as a longtime president of public institutions of higher education, appeared to recognize in her every word the central role that states will have to play in carrying out the shared "national" strategy around which federal and state policy makers, foundations, and other leaders appear to be coalescing: significantly increasing the rate of college degree completion  in the United States.
President Obama has thrown his rhetorical weight behind that agenda, and the administration and Congress are prepared to provide financial incentives to stimulate it, Kanter said, but states and their leaders will have to do most of the work.
"It's probably not the most popular conversation for you as state leaders to say that the achievement gap is at the top of your agenda, but if it isn't, we won't have an agenda," she said. The federal government can provide money for states to plan and share data, and to encourage the development and spread of successful practices. "But it's going to be up to us to figure out how to scale them and sustain them."
The state leaders gathered here generally shared a sense of optimism and excitement about how the federal government's support, rhetorical and financial, aligns with their own desires (framed by the SHEEO organization) to increase college going and higher education attainment in their backyards. Attendees eagerly gobbled up information about what was happening in Washington (President Obama announced his community college plan  as the meeting got under way, and Congressional Democrats unveiled their legislation  to carry out the Obama plan as it continued.)
But beneath the enthusiasm at the meeting of state higher ed leaders was a sense of reality, even skepticism, about how easily the agreed-upon agenda will come to pass. "Creating a global work force is a great 30,000-foot mantra, but how do you translate that into dynamic strategies locally?" said Robert Stein, commissioner of higher education in Missouri. "There's a big difference between 'here's an idea we want to do' and 'here's a realistic plan of how to do it.'"
Many structural and other impediments await at the state level, especially since some of the policy changes that might be necessary to significantly increase the college credential count (such as revising funding formulas to reward institutions on completion rather than enrollment, and to direct more students to community colleges for the first two years of college) have historically provoked significant opposition. Wide variation in the power and authority of higher education agencies -- and in the interest level and commitment of governors and legislators -- from state to state is another potential roadblock. So, too, are the perceived quality and capacity of the states' community college systems to handle additional students and responsibility.
And while the enormous financial stress many states now face could encourage more innovative thinking, it could also make state leaders more afraid to shake things up, many here said.
"States are generally excited and nervous at the same time," Stein said. "True leaders have to think differently and not fall back into comfort zones. Are we going to end up chasing dollars by doing more of the same, or are we going to really get some change?"
The annual meeting of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association, which represents the agencies that govern or coordinate college systems, provided fresh evidence of what is increasingly becoming a consensus national strategy for higher education. National higher education groups like SHEEO , the Making Opportunity Affordable initiative , and major philanthropic groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  and Lumina Foundation for Education  have in recent years embraced the same basic philosophy about higher education: that the country needs to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college credential to ensure a sufficient flow of skilled workers for the changing economy.
That emerging consensus gained the high-profile backing  of President Obama in February, when he called for having the United States "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Since then, the president has thrown the full weight of his administration behind the goal, emphasizing higher education in the economic stimulus package, pushing for massive increases in Pell Grant spending and, last week, proposing a major influx of funds into (accompanied by increased expectations for) community colleges.
An "amazing convergence," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education and a speaker at the SHEEO meeting, called the common views. "All these groups are aligned around this issue of college access and completion," added William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and chairman of the College Board's Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, whose own report , "Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future," hit many of the same themes.
Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the SHEEO group, compared the consensus that has emerged between federal and state policy makers as on par with other seminal moments when higher education has soared to the top of the national agenda, such as the passage of the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965, and that "changed what we thought about higher education."
SHEEO published an April document laying out what the federal government and states need to do to achieve the "completion" agenda, and the Obama administration and Congress are "doing exactly what we wanted," strengthening Pell Grants, providing support for state higher education data systems, ensuring continued access to student loans, revamping the Workforce Investment Act and, perhaps most importantly, "providing moral leadership" through the use of the bully pulpit, Lingenfelter said.
Many longtime state higher education officials say they've been heartened by the extent to which the Obama administration, in contrast with some of its predecessors, seems to recognize that most of the heavy lifting must be done by the states. "They're starting with the understanding that they have to work through the states, and they don't necessarily assume that they're able to do everything," said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation and a former state higher education executive in New Mexico.
"The hope is that this federal push can provide an impetus to the states to attack the really tough stuff," tackling issues such as institutional productivity and the criteria they use to distribute money to colleges and universities.
Moving Beyond Rhetoric
That's where the rub may be.
For most states (and in turn the country) to dramatically increase the number of college goers and graduates they turn out, for instance, will require "redefining 'excellence' in higher education," Lingenfelter said, arguably focusing more attention, and money, on two-year and four-year colleges that emphasize undergraduate education than on research universities. (The SHEEO agenda for states calls for "establishing the maximization of educational attainment as the explicit policy goal for state appropriations and tuition," shorthand for tying state money to how successfully colleges enroll and graduate students from underprepared backgrounds.)
While a few states have moved in this direction  in recent months, these are the kinds of shifts in policy direction that tend to create divisions among different sectors of higher education and their legislative supporters, often resulting in their running aground. In many states, legislators are more interested in boosting the research university, often where they enrolled and want to send their kids, than the community college system. And many state economic development plans emphasize the potential of spinoff businesses from research over the workers that two-year and four-year undergraduate colleges might crank out.
And unless and until states are able to change the way they make higher education policy, putting the interests of the entire state and of students above those of institutions, it may be difficult to translate the powerful rhetoric of the Obama administration and others into action.
"So much of what the federal government is doing can be checkmated by states and institutions," said Patrick Callan, whose National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has long advocated for the sorts of changes around which the political and policy establishments are now converging. "The federal government can incentivize the states and institutions, but when it comes to politics, so much still tends to be about the care, feeding and regulation of institutions."
In addition to possibly reallocating how they distribute their money, Callan and others say, states may have to get tougher about limiting institutional missions and reining in their program growth. There is enormous variability in the power and authority of state higher education executives to impose their will in that way, dictated as much by how much support and attention they have from their governors as by their statutory authority.
State agencies interested in producing change internally may get some added momentum, if not outright authority, from the sticks and carrots that the federal government appears poised to include in legislation now being drafted to carry out the Obama administration's community college initiative and other changes, said Stanley G. Jones, former commissioner for higher education in Indiana and now president of the National Consortium for College Completion, a Gates-funded effort.
Unlike the economic stimulus package, which Callan said poured billions of dollars into higher education "without any requirement for innovation," President Obama's community college initiative, and Rep. George Miller's legislation to carry it out , are filled with requirements aimed at ensuring performance, Jones said. "This is not a program to just give money and hope people do good things," he said. "There's a lot of money, but it's also about reform."
One other major factor clouds the landscape on this and virtually every other issue facing higher education: the economic distress facing the country and most states. It is certainly possible that states' economic difficulties might give the federal government more latitude to prod states to change by holding out financial help and attaching significant strings that would require them to change their behavior to get their hands on it.
But history -- and even recent behavior -- also shows that states tend to respond to economic changes by just "expanding or contracting on the model they already have," said Callan, noting that one need look no further than his home state of California to see university and college leaders there cutting back on the number of students they enroll because of decreased budgets.
So for all the talk of unprecedented convergence around the need for the country and its component states to increase their college going and completion rates, Callan said, "we may be taking a step backward in California and elsewhere on the goal, and the clock is ticking."