Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a tough message to state colleges last month: Despite the cascading effects of the recession falling hardest on state governments, states should not expect the federal government to provide stopgap money to maintain business as usual. Duncan advised states to get creative.
Lumina Foundation for Education agrees. To increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025, as President Obama aims to do, the nation needs quantum improvements in productivity.
We believe states must lead the way. In our experience working in and with state government, the first and hardest step toward productive creativity is penetrating inertia. When the going gets tough, there is comfort in the status quo. Working with HCM Strategists, a public policy consulting firm, we have made $9 million in grants to states as a testament to creative, courageous state leaders, and a talented, fresh team of “inertia busters.”
The “inertia busters” embody the skill set we believe is necessary to promote and deliver on the state higher education policy changes this nation needs.
This means assembling a team that included a former chief of staff to a governor, Jimmy Clarke, who knows how to run interference for politicians; a grass-roots advocate for change Ellyn Artis; a higher education faculty member Mario Martinez; and a director of a federal regional education lab, Rob Muller.
Their role was to promote and advance innovative ideas and strong leadership. As constructive critics and fierce advocates, the inertia busters helped open the door for elected officials to seize the incredible moment for change posed by the confluence of a deep recession and ambitious national degree attainment goals. By simply focusing on the change that is needed now, this team busted inertia in several ways.
1. Maintaining momentum in the face of leadership change. If the economy weren’t enough bad news, Arizona reeled after the White House took Gov. Janet Napolitano and the two education committee chairs left office. Enter an inertia buster, Darcy Renfro, who used her strong policy reputation in Arizona and legal skills to lift up the Board of Regents’ leadership while energizing a new crop of leaders. Arizona’s ambitious agenda promises a new funding model and an array of innovative ways to get Arizonans bachelor’s degrees at much lower costs.
2. Asking states the critical questions so new policies engage institutions. Maryland and Wisconsin are states where policy solutions start with institutions. Greg Nichols, a former state higher education exec, encouraged Maryland’s review of 40,000 student transcripts to understand at which colleges and in which courses productivity was most affected. Now, the community and independent colleges will join with the University System of Maryland to redesign the top 24 introductory courses and turn these courses into money-saving, student-excelling models for the entire state.
In Wisconsin, Rob Muller encouraged the institutions to identify the state policies that stand in the way of their efforts to promote swifter student progress toward a degree.
Advisers Nate Johnson, Jeff Stanley and Amy Sebring have campus level and state government experience that helped their state teams in Tennessee, Ohio and Texas, respectively, grapple with how to design and use powerful new funding incentives for course and degree completion. All three states are now poised to be national models for how campuses and legislators learn and work together to align spending with completion goals.
3. Pushing states to take the hard steps now, when resources are down, versus waiting for a sunnier day. Like most states, budget straits left Montana and Indiana struggling to maintain the most basic services. Inertia busters Judy Heiman and Jeff Stanley saw opportunity in this crisis.
Judy’s experience in the governor’s office and legislature in states on both coasts and Jeff’s career on Indiana’s campuses and state higher education commission afforded them a unique perspective to affirm the importance of a potentially unpopular change.
Both states used funds from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to make higher education more cost-effective now. For example, Montana halted all new construction and used federal stimulus dollars to develop a university portal and online infrastructure that will serve far more students with high-quality courses that are available more hours and in more places. Indiana used stimulus funds to expand its share of total state funding dedicated to completion incentives.
The contribution of the inertia busters and seed grants are small in proportion to that of elected leaders who deserve the ultimate credit for the work to date. Governors and state legislators will continue to take the heat and muster the courage to change deeply embedded policy and practice.
But the “inertia buster” difference maker is so important that we are commending this role to others looking to promote state policy change.
Suzanne Walsh is a senior program director at Lumina Foundation for Education where she leads the foundation’s productivity work. Kristin Conklin, a founding partner of HCM Strategists and principal lead for Lumina's state productivity grants, has spent 15 years working on college readiness and success with state and federal policy makers.