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The Business We're In
When standard formulas fail, the work of policymakers has got to change

By Gordon K. Davies


 
   
Since the end of World War II and the introduction of the GI Bill, higher education policy development has focused extensively on building institutional capacity, as higher education became a general public good rather than an elite privilege. Institutions have been funded to absorb ever-greater numbers of students and to build intellectual capital. And they have done it well.

To be sure, there never was enough funding. As Howard Bowen pointed out years ago, because there is no limit to how good education can be, there also is no limit to how much money can be spent on it. Describing this exuberant period which, in retrospect, probably ended in the late 1980s, Jim Furman once joked that Illinois had built higher education facilities so rapidly that it crossed the border into Indiana and built some there without realizing it.

In all of this capacity building, we came to behave as if institutions were ends in themselves, not means to achieving public purposes. We tended to forget that no institution can survive unless it finds its meaning outside itself.

A substantial population growth in many states will lead to increased demands for access to higher education over the coming decade. But states with low participation rates and stable or even declining populations-states like Kentucky and West Virginia-also have to increase enrollment substantially. They have low rates of participation in education beyond high school and their economies are hindered by the lack of a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. In many, if not in all, states with a population that is increasing, there also are sub-populations that historically have been under-served by the educational systems: California, Texas and Virginia are only three examples.

Political, economic and technological changes in our world now call into question even the most aggressive capacity building of the post-World War II period. These changes have not been as sudden as they might feel (as I suggested, I think they were becoming evident as early as 1989), but they also are not glacial. Change is occurring and it is occurring quickly.

The sorting function of higher education-colleges and universities deciding, by whom they admit, which women and men will have professional lives that require advanced education-is obsolete. Postsecondary education, some kind of education beyond high school, now is essential to persons seeking decent lives for themselves and their families. Indeed, persons with only a high school credential are punished cruelly by the modern economy.

Where do we go? What can we expect? Adrienne Rich, in the thirteenth of "Twenty-One Love Poems," wrote these lines:

    Whatever we do together is pure invention
    The maps they gave us were out of date by years

The work we have done in our professional lives is changing, has got to change. Our great opportunity is to re-define that work. We can help people in higher education, and those who provide support for it, to stay focused on the importance of the work they do, even as they prepare new maps to replace those that are out of date by years.

Ken Ashworth, when he was Texas state higher education executive officer, liked to say that state coordinating bodies were "speed bumps" on the road of institutional ambition. We promoted fair and equitable distribution of resources. We mediated conflict. We slowed down, but never really stopped, mission creep. If we try to do the same work in the 21st century, we shall fail those who depend upon us.

This is not a time for business as usual. It is an opportunity to define our work in ways like this: To improve the quality of lives in our states; to insure the public health; and to promote the general welfare.

I suggest that this new work begins at the state level, with consideration of such issues as educational achievement, per capita income, voting rates, migration to and from other states, physical health, adult illiteracy, public school measures of learning, the well-being of children, and rates of incarceration. If we were to examine this information county-by-county, by race and by sex, and look for the pockets of educational disadvantage, we would find correlations among these and a myriad of other personal and social difficulties. Higher education then can be understood as a public health issue. Decisions about institutional mission, allocation of resources among institutions, student financial aid, the ugly ditches that separate high schools from colleges, and community colleges from universities-all these and more will change.

Kentucky can serve as just one example. On balance, the state has a poorly educated work force. Per capita income is about 82 percent of the national average, and about one million persons in a potential work force of 2.4 million are functionally illiterate (that is, they have difficulty reading, writing and doing basic arithmetic to an extent that disqualifies them for all but the most basic kinds of jobs).

It is no accident that Kentucky ranked 40th among the states in the annual tabulation called "Kids Count," which is published by The Children's Defense Fund to track how well children are living in the states. One of our goals in Kentucky was to improve postsecondary education so children would live better. A major reason why Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education assumed responsibility for adult basic education was to help poorly educated mothers and fathers gain the skills they needed to ensure that their children would be ready to go to school. The state doubled its funding for adult basic education.

But the situation is not simple-there are states with very fine university systems in which children live poorly according to "Kids Count." It is possible to build universities that are strong by common measures while disregarding the needs of children. It is, indeed, possible to build great systems at the expense of our children.

In Kentucky, we created the maps by county that I described earlier. We showed the highest incidences of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, children living in poverty, unemployment, and low per-capita income. The maps looked very similar to one another because physical health, family health, economic self-sufficiency and educational attainment are all closely correlated.

The Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy, a project funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, is working now with five states to improve policy by focusing on how well the educational needs of a state's citizens are being met. We lay out these maps for policymakers and influential citizens, trying to show them that a skilled and knowledgeable population is not only essential to the economy but to the very social fabric of the state and its communities.

The Collaborative's members are the Education Commission of the States, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Together, they bring significant resources to each of the states with which we have entered into partnership.

Good labor economists, statisticians and others have told me that there is no "causal nexus" between universities and the quality of children's lives. That may be true but the correlations are undeniable. And if there is no causal nexus, I believe we should assert one. We should say that it is not acceptable-that it is unconscionable-to build a great university system in a state that is in the bottom ten or fifteen in how well children live. The well-being of individuals, families and communities should be included in our work and in our performance standards.

A hundred years ago, Henry Adams was coming to the end of both his life and an account of his education. He had undertaken, in The Education of Henry Adams, to explain the place of everything in the historical record and to demonstrate the progress of humankind through the ages. He had failed, but he would not give up. He had not developed a verifiable uniform theory of history, so he would try once more.

In "The Education," Henry Adams wrote, "To the tired student, the idea that he must give it up seemed sheer senility. As long as he could whisper, he would go on as he had begun, bluntly refusing to meet his creator with the admission that creation had taught him nothing except that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle might for convenience be taken as equal to something else. Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed...

"The effort must begin at once, for time pressed. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it."

The old formulas have failed; the maps are out of date. We need to begin again, recognizing that institutions of higher learning are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Correlations between educational advantage and decent, accountable and responsible lives are important. Education is not a trivial pursuit but a deeply ethical work that will determine the future of our society.

Our work involves great attention to details because good policy decisions are grounded in good information about what's really going on out there. There is a lot of bean-counting, a lot of negotiation, a lot of mediation and compromise.

And there is a lot of teaching. Primarily, we are teachers. Every time we attend a meeting or appear before legislators, editorial boards, the Rotary, or any other group, we can try to leave people with one new thought, one provocative idea about higher education and its place in our lives. We can try to leave them with one thing they want to tell someone else later that day.

Once on a climb in Italy, I grabbed a piece of rock that came off in my hands. I fell about 20 feet until the rope caught me, and I bounced a bit and settled down.

Then I discovered that I still was holding onto the piece of rock that had come off in my hands. It was the last piece of security I had, so I'd hung on to it even though it was entirely useless.

We need to let go of the useless things ourselves and help others to do the same. That's teaching. It's also leadership.


Gordon K. Davies is executive director of the National Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy. He is a former president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, and directed Virginia's State Council of Higher Education for 20 years. This article was adapted from remarks made at a SHEEO meeting last summer.

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