The bigger and broader the objective, the more diffused the responsibility for achieving it can be. For instance, with a mammoth undertaking like the college completion goal  that President Obama and like-minded foundations  and associations  have laid out for the United States over the next 10-15 years, saying that "the country" needs to increase its college-going rate to 60 percent is so general that it makes both everyone and no one responsible for doing the heavy lifting.
To combat that vagueness, policy makers and politicians have tended to break down the job into discrete units, with a focus on states (where various sectors of public higher education can work together, with the guidance of governors and chancellors) and individual colleges (which can be held accountable for their own performance and improvement).
But in a pair of reports to be released today, the postsecondary education program at the Center for American Progress -- which takes pride in reframing existing policy discussions -- points out that both of those approaches have inherent problems.
Focusing on the states creates difficulties in those metropolitan areas where multiple states intersect, putting up unnecessary barriers (in the form of financial aid, tuition and credit transfer policies) that inhibit the flow of students. And viewing higher education completion through the prism of individual institutions' productivity -- judging them on how many graduates they produce -- ignores the rapidly increasing numbers of students who attend multiple colleges. "[A]n institution’s graduation rate is not what we truly care about," three of the center's staff members write. "What matters more is whether a student completes a degree anywhere in the system -- regardless of that student’s pattern of mobility."
In the two papers, the center offers alternatives -- to complement, not replace, the existing approaches. In "Easy Come, EZ-GO,"  three researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Policy propose that the federal government seed an "educational zone" experiment aimed at deregulating higher education in 20 large metropolitan areas that sit at the crossroads of multiple states, knocking down barriers that prevent a "regional" approach to higher education.
And in "Degree Completion Beyond Institutional Borders,"  researchers from the center and from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning argue that the institution-centered emphasis on the traditional credit hour as the basis for acknowledging academic achievement is increasingly misguided, given the previously referenced (and intensifying) student mobility. The paper advocates for more acceptance of several alternative methods that some colleges and organizations are using to award credit, from competency-based models to rigorous evaluation and formal recognition of prior learning.
From State to Metro as Frame
The idea that higher education is a regional rather than a state enterprise is not new; organizations like the Southern Regional Education Board, the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, the New England Board of Higher Education, and the Midwestern Higher Education Compact have used that approach to their areas' challenges and opportunities for many years, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is five years into a project  that examines how higher education can help cities and regions promote the development of people and innovations.
But because the vast majority of American college students attend public institutions that are operated and funded (if to declining degrees) by states, most analyses of U.S. higher education -- and most approaches to improving it -- are (understandably) framed through the states, notes the "Easy Come, EZ-GO" report, produced by IHEP's Brian A. Sponsler, Gregory S. Kienzl, and Alexis J. Wesaw.
But "state-based strategies for reaching required college-degree attainment goals run the risk of overlooking the critical role metropolitan centers must play in reaching these targets," they write. "Moreover, given the jurisdictional nature of postsecondary policy, states are ill-equipped to effectively manage an important subset of metropolitan America -- metro regions that cross state boundaries."
To make their point, the researchers, after identifying 44 metro areas that touch at least two states, zero in on the largest 20 (seen in the figure below), which, taken together, account for more than 66 million people and 27.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. They range from comparatively small places like Allentown, Pa. (which touches New Jersey) and Chattanooga, Tenn. (bordering on Georgia) to behemoths Chicago (which draws from Indiana and Wisconsin) and New York, a metro area that reaches into New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Cities are a logical focal point for those concerned about increasing higher education attainment, the authors note, given that they are increasingly population-heavy, that those populations are more likely than rural populations to include the minority and low-income Americans who are the least likely to be college-educated already, and that, "as drivers of economic activity, it is vital to the national interest that labor pools in the nation's metro-based economic centers be adequately educated and trained to meet the demands of employers.... Future productivity demands it."
But many cities present challenges, too, given the state-based framing of most higher education policy setting. Students in these border cities are highly mobile and likely to attend multiple institutions (sometimes at the same time). As a result, financial aid programs in many states that provide funds only to students who attend an in-state institution, and tuition policies in many places that charge much more to out-of-state students than to residents -- while arguably sound policies for the states' own purposes -- help these students little. And while many institutions and states have worked to ease the transferability of academic credit, cross-border transfer of credit is more complex, and in many cases difficult.
While multi-state areas often figure out ways to collaborate in other realms of public policy -- think regional transportation networks and utility management -- they seem rarely to do so when it comes to higher education, the authors argue. To illustrate that, the authors examine the area surrounding Portland (not Maine), which spreads to five counties in Oregon and two in Washington. One of the Washington counties, Clark, has three relatively small colleges, yet needs to produce nearly 55,000 degrees to hit the 60 percent mark for its college-age population.
Portland's public two-year and four-year colleges would be logical places for Clark County's residents to enroll, but Portland's community colleges charge out-of-state students tuition and fees of $8,772 a year, compared to $3,120 for Oregonians. And Clark County residents who qualify for state financial aid in Washington would be unable to use it to attend a college or university in Portland, the report states.
A Federal Role
So what might be done to change that and other situations like it? The report's authors envision the federal government stepping in to clear some paths.
Under the concept they lay out, Congress would create a series of Education Zone Governance Organizations in specific metro areas -- "places in the nation where the federal government should coordinate and incentivize policymaking to take a regional approach to support increasing educational attainment," they write.
A commission, housed in the Education Department, would set the boundaries of the city zones and advise the department and Congress on steps they could take to give incentives to state governments, colleges and other local players, and to redesign federal policy to topple barriers.
For instance, the commission might push for altering a new provision in the Higher Education Act on intra-system articulation agreements to allow the Education Department to help design and foster such arrangements across state lines. One example: The federal government could provide a bonus to a college that graduates a Pell Grant-eligible student from a county in another state within its education zone, with the goal of having the money be enough to "offset differences in the institutional cost of educating a state versus a nonstate resident," the report states. "Such a program would address in part the disparity in state subsidization of postsecondary education," and address concerns that might arise among legislators in a state about providing access at in-state rates to more out-of-state students.
The government might also provide matching funds to expand capacity at public institutions in the education zones that agree to increase their enrollments of students from counties within the region, the authors write.
"Our proposed EZ-GO Commission would be a powerful agent in support of regional approaches to expanding postsecondary education opportunity," they conclude. "As state leaders struggle with depressed fiscal conditions, provincial college completion concerns, and complex political environments, we hold out little hope that state leaders will nurture a college-degree attainment agenda for ... critical metropolitan areas.... We do, however, think that supported by federal policy action, local actors could make more effective and efficient use of human capital in interstate metro America."
The second paper  released by the Center for American Progress today -- produced by Rebecca Klein-Collins and Amy Sherman of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and by Louis Soares, who heads CAP's higher education program -- focuses on the "waste" of time, effort and money that governments, colleges and students expend because students are forced to repeat, or fail to get credit for, "learning they gained at other postsecondary institutions, in military training, or in the workplace," as the authors describe it.
Rather than document the extent of the problem, other than to argue strongly that the federal government should de-emphasize rather than reinforce the use of the credit hour as the basis for measuring student progress, the authors spend most of their time describing a set of mechanisms "that allow students to convert or exchange -- like a type of currency -- their college credits and prior learning ... for academic credit."
Some of these mechanisms, like articulation agreements to facilitate credit transfer among institutions, have been around for a long time and are fairly widely embraced; others, like the competency-based methods of assessing students' skills and learning used by Western Governors University and a small number of other institutions, are relatively recent developments.
The report pays significant attention to the existing methods by which students and would-be students can earn credit for prior learning -- including the portfolio assessment done by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, the evaluation of military and corporate credits by the American Council on Education, and the use of standardized exams such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams -- and the evolving systems being developed by CAEL and Academy One aimed at making it easier for students to collect formal and informal academic work and for institutions to assess it.
An event framed around these papers will take place today  at the Center for American Progress. It will be streamed live.