Purpose, Tools, Leverage ... and Guts

It's high time for states to make significant change in their public higher ed systems, argues Gordon Davies -- who describes the four essential attributes they'll need.


June 8, 2009

This has been, at best, an unpleasant year for higher education throughout the nation. State budgets in most states either have been severely cut or are in turmoil. Support for higher education is being treated as a discretionary budget item, as it has been for generations. The very thought of increasing taxes sends governors and legislators scurrying for protection behind political rhetoric.

Many states cut higher education in 2008; almost every state cut it in 2009; and further cuts are likely in 2010. Federal stimulus money has offset some of the reductions but it will be gone after next year. What is gone won’t be coming back any time soon.

Diminished state support has affected decisions about access, completion and affordability. In at least one state -- California -- massive enrollment reductions are likely. Understandably, the current economic situation has distracted business leaders, educators, government officials, and others from the challenges of building a more skilled and knowledgeable population.

In short, the need to do something very important (educate more people at lower cost) has been displaced by the need to do something even more important (restore the economic integrity of the nation). But in the long run the two are closely related.

President Obama sees this and continues to emphasize the importance of postsecondary education to the nation’s future. Educational leaders and others are calling for significant changes in the ways colleges and universities are organized and in the services they provide. Public institutions especially are being asked to focus on maximizing service, rather than status. Trustees are being reminded that they are responsible for how the public is served. They are admonished to represent the people, not just the ambitions of the institutions on whose boards they sit.

Purpose, Tools, Leverage, and Guts

In any state, some group needs four attributes in order to initiate significant change, especially among a set of institutions as powerful as colleges and universities. The group has to see clearly what it wants to do (Purpose), determine that it has has the tools to get it done (or can empower some other entity to use its tools), can muster social and political support to sustain the effort (Leverage), and has the courage to “put it on the line” in order to succeed (Guts).

Purpose. As state colleges and universities struggle to cope with decreased appropriations in what clearly is not just another temporary “down” in the budget cycle, their behavior as institutions has to change. As a nation, we have fallen behind others in educational achievement, measured not just by bachelor’s degrees but by postsecondary degrees and certificates at all levels. At a miserable economic time we need to focus on three priority goals: Productivity, Effectiveness, and Efficiency.

More people should have access to postsecondary education and should be helped to complete a program leading to a degree, diploma, or certificate. We need to pay colleges and universities for student completion rather than for enrollment and attendance.

We need to ensure that students learn what they need to know and be able to do: that their studies prepare them for useful work and participation in their communities.

We need to reduce the average unit cost of program completion. State and federal support for postsecondary education is not sufficient to permit colleges and universities to spend as much money per credential as they do now. Even reasonable increases would not allow institutions to serve many more students while continuing their current expenditure patterns. And the money taken from college and university budgets last year, this year, and next year, is not coming back soon if at all.

Tools. Either the group itself or some entity within it has to have a set of practical tools at its disposal in order to get the work done. Here are some that seem important.

1. Budget formulae determine how institutions build their budget requests. For decades, the formulae have been primarily enrollment-driven: colleges and universities are appropriated funds based on the number of students enrolled. They receive a certain amount for maintenance and operation of the physical plant based on its square footage, and money for faculty salary increases that often are determined by comparison with peer institutions nationwide.

Someone once advised higher education budget-makers to “reward the behavior you want.” It is sound advice. If a state wants more completers, it should pay for completion rather than simply for enrollment.

2. Program review and approval are important to ensure that institutions do not unnecessarily duplicate one another’s offerings and that they close programs that produce few graduates. The authority to require closing programs that produce few completers is important (and sometimes helps institutional administrators do what they cannot do on their own because of faculty resistance).

3. Mission approval is particularly important in this age of “mission creep”: institutions constantly seeking to move up an imaginary ladder of prestige. Institutions, and their leaders, often are rewarded for increasing their status -- becoming more elite -- rather than for increasing the depth and reach of the services they provide. Institutional advocates sometimes will argue that status and service are synonymous, but they are not.

4. Setting enrollment objectives is important because getting bigger does not mean getting better. If budget formulae are changed to pay for successful completion rather than enrollment, some of the incentive to grow will be removed. But some will remain (for example, student fees partly support intercollegiate athletic programs; the more fees, the bigger the programs).

In addition, one way to reduce the average cost of program completion in a state is to re-distribute student enrollment so that more of it is at lower cost institutions. The large research university, which often uses funding for undergraduate education to support research and graduate study, is the most costly place for large undergraduate enrollments.

Much of the workplace need in the decades ahead will be for “middle skill” workers: completers of community college degrees and certificates, and of for-profit institutions that make extensive use of on-line instruction. Like all workers, they will need continuing education to remain current as their responsibilities change. But their postsecondary education can be acquired at institutions that have fewer amenities, and lower costs, than large universities.

This is not a “must have” list. There are ways to compensate if one tool or another is not available in a particular state. (For example, a governor once told colleges and universities that he would veto the budget amendments of any institution that did not cooperate with a review of program productivity. His warning worked.) But they are good tools to consider when undertaking to effect change.

Leverage. Even higher education governing or coordinating boards that have considerable clout are not likely to get much done unless they build networks of supporters who are willing to help. In some states where the board does not exercise much influence, networks are even more important in order to leverage change.

In one state a network was formed by a Business-Higher Education Council that effectively assumed responsibility for coordination and advocacy when the state agency was rendered ineffective by political intervention. In another, a Commission on the Future -- not the future of higher education, but the future of the state -- has assumed responsibility for an agenda that is quite similar to that I am suggesting.

Exercising “leverage” requires partnerships: among businesses, regions, elected officials, educational systems from K to 20, and cultural and civic organizations. These take time and are not easy to build, especially in times of economic turmoil and term limits. (The CEOs of banks that may be gone tomorrow and legislators who will be gone soon do not exercise much influence.)

But change will occur primarily for two reasons: because it is rewarded with money and because powerful partnerships insist upon it.

Guts. After all the tools are on the bench and all the leveraging networks have been built, comes the crucial test: Has anyone got the courage to act decisively?

Doing so requires that the major players be willing to advance suggestions for change that would upset comfortable ways of behaving (“We’ve always done it that way!” and “No other state does it that way!”).

1. Creating much greater capacity in the least expensive institutions and channeling many more students to them. 2. Capping or reducing undergraduate enrollment at large universities with graduate and research missions. 3. Forming partnerships with for-profit institutions to deliver all or portions of programs on-line.
4. Paying for successful completion of programs by students and assessing what they have learned and can do.
5. Standardizing large portions of the undergraduate curricula and delivering it on-line across institutions.
6. Encouraging high schools to teach the first year of what is casually called “General Education” so it becomes possible to begin offering three-year baccalaureate degrees.
7. Working across the gap between high school and postsecondary education to reduce the need for remedial education and then to improve remedial education for those who need to overcome deficiencies.

The list can go on and on. The ideas all are outrageous, at least to some. But without outrageous ideas (“An airplane without propellors? You’ve got to be kidding!”), we’re not going to come even close to reinstating the United States as the leading nation in educational attainment.

Leadership should not be confused with martyrdom. Radical reform is not synonymous with foolishness. But change is not without risk.

Herein lies the biggest test of all.


Gordon Davies was director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia from 1977 until 1997, and president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education from 1998 until 2002.


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