Between them, Patrick M. Callan, Jane Wellman and Dennis P. Jones have seen close-up plenty of incomplete and unsuccessful efforts to improve higher education. And as veterans of the higher education policy landscape, they have well-developed reputations as -- depending on your perspective -- constructive critics or never-satisfied "lamenters." 
The latest exhortation from these three wise people of higher education policy and their organizations -- the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (Callan), the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability (Wellman), and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (Jones) -- is likely to reinforce those reputations.
In a report published today in the public policy center's National CrossTalk,  the three groups argue that the lofty college completion goal that has emerged as the closest thing to a national higher education strategy in a half century will not succeed without much more aggressive leadership than national, state and higher education leaders have shown so far.
"For too long, policymakers and higher education leaders have engaged in a 'we need to change, but you go first' conversation," the three write. "Meanwhile, costs have skyrocketed, attainment has stagnated, and the public has grown skeptical. Failing to act will not result in catastrophic failure in American higher education, but a slow and steady erosion of confidence, investment, and quality."
There's been no lack of words, the report says, about the need for American higher education to seriously confront the two very serious challenges facing it: "increasing the proportion of Americans who participate in and complete programs of education and training beyond high school, and closing educational gaps associated with income, race, and ethnicity." (The second gets short shrift in many discussions about higher education these days, but is just as vital, the three say.)
And while it's easy to suggest that complacency, fear of change, and budget troubles have combined to prompt inactivity, many individual colleges and states have taken steps to attack the completion and access gaps. "The problem is not that this is a bankrupt enterprise, or that we don't know what works or how to do it," Callan, president of the soon-to-be-shuttered National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said in a group interview with his co-authors last week. "But not many things are being applied at scale. This is not a technical or research problem -- it's a leadership problem."
Federal, state and institutional leaders all get a share of the responsibility in the authors' eyes.
The authors credit the Obama administration for using the federal government's unmatchable visibility and bully pulpit to define a national college completion goal, but note that it ultimately "squandered" (Callan's word) its attempt to use what might have been the last major infusion of federal money for the foreseeable future (in last spring's passage  of the health care/student loan overhaul) to put real money behind the attainment effort.
States have too often responded with business as usual -- falling back into the typical patterns and "counterproductive practices" in which they allow (or force) higher education to "expand and contract" depending on the flow of state revenues. And institutional leaders, often responding to state and federal funding incentives, have focused on increasing revenues (especially tuition) rather than managing costs, and when they've cut costs, they've done so in short-term rather than strategic ways.
Each of the parties -- federal, state and institutional -- gets a pointed to-do list going forward.
The federal government must "take the point more proactively in the political/leadership aspects of the strategy," the authors write. Setting a goal is one thing, but the Obama administration has provided "no clear outline of a national strategy that would mobilize the public, state governments, campus leaders, and the business community around the goal."
The government also needs to align its "current higher education resources to leverage change at the state and institutional levels" -- an approach that might include the following:
- Bringing governors and state legislators together (perhaps in a summit) and establishing (perhaps through a national commission) "explicit national and state benchmarks" toward the college completion and equity goals.
- Reviewing all existing and new federal programs to ensure that they give states and institutions incentives to achieve the national and state goals.
- Reevaluating "regulatory and reporting" relationships between the government and institutions to "emphasize policy and performance over compliance reporting," and setting "accountability indicators" that compel institutions and states to show progress toward the goals set for them.
States have the biggest job to do, according to the authors. Some of it involves setting goals (and creating metrics to measure progress toward those goals) for different types of institutions, with an eye toward building up the capacity of "broad access" colleges and, if necessary, limiting the "mission creep" in which many regional and other four-year public institutions often engage.
Recognizing that, at least in the short term, additional funds will be hard to come by, "states must create and implement new budgeting and financing approaches for higher education" -- the "hardest task of all," the authors write, "because it will mean abandoning well-understood and deeply ingrained practices that, in their time, served institutions and states admirably."
Out should be state financing formulas "based on enrollments and equitable funding of similar institutions," which serve to "preserve the institutional status quo rather than creating incentives for vital changes, such as improved persistence and graduation rates, or cost containment." In their place should be policies that align funding for institutions to state-set goals, promote increases in productivity and degree and certificate completions, and focus on need-based financial aid, the authors say.
"Because funding is at the core of higher education policy at the state level, proposed changes will encounter opposition at every step," the report states, reinforcing the need for leadership from governors and legislators.
Campus leaders -- including not just presidents, but board and faculty members -- "face what is arguably the most difficult challenge," the authors write.
"They must lead in the creation of a new operational culture, one that focuses primarily on (1) cost management rather than revenue enhancement; (2) on the core instructional mission rather than extending the mission to pursue new sources of revenue and status (i.e., research, graduate programs); and (3) on strategic choices rather than short-term fixes," the report states. "The new culture will have to make the successful education of
undergraduates the dominant priority of all but a handful of institutions."
This "wrenching" change will not come easily, the authors write. But "[w]e encourage all in a position to lead to do so with deeds, not words. Waiting for conditions to improve or for optimum conditions for change will ensure that neither will occur. The right time for action is now."