Institutional Interests, Statewide Concerns

Colleges want Congress to give higher ed reform money to them, but lawmakers should channel the funds through the states. writes Robert H. Atwell.

November 9, 2009

Good public policy for higher education is more than the sum total of individual college and university interests and aspirations. That statement has particular salience for state responsibilities in the present situation, in which some states have been cutting back on funding for public institutions. As the state share of institutional revenue declines, the competition between institutions becomes ever more ferocious.

Without a state capacity for analysis and planning, this competition brings on a Darwinian struggle in which the more politically connected and savvy institutions win, even though there may be a better case for others.

Florida is a poster child for the chaos that results from a weak or nonexistent state level capacity. The 10 senior institutions and the community colleges in Florida are in constant competition for the small crumbs of state appropriations remaining after prisons, Medicaid, and other mandatory programs get theirs. I mention Florida because it is now my home state, and it is sad to see the chaos that results from the absence of a capacity to look at the needs of the state and to hold institutions accountable for results including improved graduation rates, access for low income and minority students and the contribution of colleges and universities to economic growth.

This tension is now being played out at the federal level. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, and the Senate is considering similar legislation. The bill contains many important provisions for existing programs and some new ones. One of the new ones -- The College Access and Completion Fund -- would provide significant funding for higher education reform through state governments.

Predictably, the American Council on Education and several other associations have joined forces to oppose channeling the money through the states. These associations represent colleges and universities, so it is understandable that they would prefer the funds to go directly to institutions.

But I would argue that over the long run institutions would be better served by a robust state policy analysis and planning capacity that would try to slow down the “mission creep” by which regional institutions aspire inappropriately to become research universities, and would promote programs that better assure student access and retention through new and innovative funding approaches.

Institutions fear that a robust statewide capacity to oversee higher education would degenerate into regulatory approaches that would compromise their autonomy and dampen their aspirations to move up in the pecking order where research universities are at the top. There have been instances -- historically, the State University of New York (SUNY) is illustrative -- where an excessively regulatory approach has not been in the interest of either the state or the institutions.

The needed state capacity should not degenerate into regulatory approaches. Rather, institutions should be accountable for results such as graduation rates, improved access, and cost reductions.

Four years ago I was honored to serve as chair of a working group convened by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That led to the adoption by the center’s Board of Directors of a paper on "The Need for State Policy Leadership," which set forth the need for a statewide capacity to address several critical areas.

First, the states need to have the capacity to produce the quantity, quality and levels of educational attainment needed for economic development and individual opportunity. Secondly, states should reach broad-based agreement on state priorities for improving performance in postsecondary education. Third, there needs to be a statewide capacity with sufficient resources to articulate state goals and the strategies to achieve those goals. Finally, the oversight responsibilities of state and institutional governing boards should be clearly defined and differentiated.

Unfortunately, few states have followed these recommendations, and a number have eliminated or weakened existing agencies. To reiterate, we should not look on this as a regulatory approach but a move to focus on accountability for meeting statewide goals.

I believe that H.R. 3221 is a step in the right direction and I hope that Congress will stay the course, despite the institutions’ push to the contrary.


Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education.


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