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National CrossTalk Fall 2002
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Creating a Strategic Vision
Observations about statewie higher education planning and coordination

By James M. Furman

Looking over the past four decades it's tempting to say that not all that much has changed with respect to statewide higher education planning and coordination. The issue remains the same today as it was in the '60s: How do we bring the best quality education to as many of our youth and adults as possible. But the scenario is much different today than it was in the past. And in many respects I don't think the past is prologue.

Between 1960 and 1970 college enrollments more than doubled, going from 3.9 million to 8.6 million students. In Ohio nearly 90 percent of the state's population resided outside the commuting distance of a state university. Lovely campuses in Oxford, Kent, Athens and Bowling Green meant little to high school graduates in Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo and Dayton. Initially, not much consideration or time was given to the formulation of coherent policies that would serve us well for the future. Our attention was devoted almost entirely to dealing with an avalanche of new students.

The name of the game was to increase public college enrollment capacity, and to do it quickly. Through the use of statewide bond issues and local tax revenues in Ohio we doubled the number of state universities within ten years. At times it looked as if a university branch or technical institute might be built in each of Ohio's 88 counties. It is even possible that, given our ardor, we crossed state lines and mistakenly built a few two-year campuses in West Virginia and Indiana.

But the environment for statewide organizations has changed dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s. College growth rates in the '70s slowed to an increase of 41 percent; 14 percent in the '80s and only seven percent during the '90s. More remarkable, perhaps, is that much of this increase in the '80s and '90s came about because of a significant jump in participation rates. In the early '60s only 45 percent of our high school graduates immediately went on to college; today that figure approaches 65 percent.

Many higher education organizations have changed or have been changed to pursue different missions-changes which sometimes have created new challenges and issues. We may now have reached a point at which institutions must adapt further to meet new social needs. My personal view is that adaptation should occur through role interpretation rather than through statutory assignment or modification.

Statewide higher education coordination seems to have gone through a few phases over the past several decades. Initially, we had to create an authoritative presence with the institutions and convince the legislature that it had done the right thing in creating our coordinating board: These were not always compatible goals. We also had to be responsive to the needs of a board of directors composed of people with little interest in policy detail. We picked our targets carefully, but not always because of their relevance to a strategic vision. We picked targets sometimes by listening to prominent elected officials and sometimes by looking for glitzy approaches that appeared to be working in other states.

In decades past, studies and recommendations were issued forth in extraordinary profusion-campus unrest, private colleges and universities, academic tenure, program reviews and funding formulas were among the numerous subjects considered.

The surprise is not so much that these were done, but that anyone is still around to talk about them. The experience secured a relatively permanent place for the agency, but it also meant that coordination began to have a connotation of power.

In the meantime, statewide boards assumed more and more administrative responsibilities. Student financial aid programs, tuition supplement arrangements, licensure and registration requirements, loan programs, and on and on-worthy endeavors in themselves, requiring someone to make them work, someone to assume management responsibility. In a very natural way this devolved to the recommending board. It did not take much of this before the enthusiasm previously devoted to coordination and planning diminished. Problems developed even when additional staff were provided, as the increased supervisory responsibilities dug further into the time of the executive staff.

Equally insidious was the follow-up responsibility associated with recommended regulatory policy changes. If the state board called for institutional service areas, it also had to define, implement, enforce and evaluate them. Roles and missions also had to be defined, assigned and monitored. These things required staff time. Since this aspect of coordination necessitated the involvement of stakeholders, participation also was involved, usually in the form of advisory committees.

Now it seems that at least some of the old approaches are in the process of being refined. Centrally imposed institutional typologies, rigid statewide program review procedures that hinge on relevance to institutional type, rather than service area needs, insignificant funding tied to performance-these and many other stalwarts are becoming of questionable worth.

Much of the discussion currently focuses on higher education's economic and social environments: economic growth and development; the corporate management model (somewhat tainted in recent months); entrepreneurship; demands for new forms of institutional responsiveness, on the one hand, and sometimes related values of access and affordability, on the other. The incongruities between these values and the way states have been doing things are great and increasingly obvious.

Other examples of change can be cited, but the message is that the role for the statewide agencies will be modified. This might well require different perspectives on planning and coordination. These perspectives might start with the popular references to the new information economy, higher education's competitive environment, workforce training, and quality of life for people who live and work in the different states. The connection between the education levels of a state's residents and its economic growth is being stressed in ways we have not heard before.

There is a new recognition of the importance of all types of institutions-technical institutions, proprietary schools, community colleges, and universities-and an appreciation of the importance of higher educational opportunities for the residents of all areas, rural as well as urban. Higher education is widely perceived for many as the ticket to the middle class.

We've heard arguments that a general shift from an emphasis on regulation to relative independence is underway, and that a state's relationship to its colleges and universities will need to change from a narrow policy focus on providers and traditional clients to a broader definition of customers, reflecting an expanded spectrum of society and wider conceptions about where and when education occurs.

A new governance style flows from this: If colleges and universities are required to adopt new and more responsive ways of serving their customers, they must be allowed to do so. Either the regulatory constraints must be appropriate and compatible with this role, or other approaches will be required.

Institutional performance measures may well become the mantra for higher education in the early decades of the new millennium. In exchange for predictable appropriations and freedom from specified procedural controls on how the funds would be spent, the institution would agree to provide more efficient and effective higher education services in specific ways. The details would be incorporated into a performance agreement, compliance with which would be the quid pro quo for continuing support.

The statewide agency would retain authority over the institution's role and mission and the introduction of new programs compatible with that mission. The statewide agency and the institution would agree on the measures that would be used to evaluate performance, and the components of the agreement would incorporate these standards and measures.

If this approach were to succeed, a new and significantly different role for the statewide agencies would logically emerge. They would likely be the entity to negotiate the agreements with the institutions, and a new definition of coordination would ensue. The role of defining policy also would become more than an academic or theoretical exercise, since the goals used to guide the agreements would need to stem from state policy. In this manner, these boards would become responsible for policy definition (in a collaborative fashion) and for using policy as the framework for coordinating and steering the system.

The need for collaboration in defining policy will be greater than ever. This recognizes the reality that few statewide boards can any longer lay claim to the fount of wisdom about higher education issues. There are too many players in that arena to ignore or exclude, and they may not all be working with the same agenda. Though their emphases may differ, they all share a common set of interests. They need to be brought together in a concerted process if these common interests are to be recognized and realized. This adds a new dimension to coordination; it is clearly one where diplomacy should play a more prominent role than power.

If this argument is sound, coordination might now be defined in part from a different perspective. Part of this perspective involves coordinating a new relationship between the institutions and the state through the negotiation and monitoring of institutional performance agreements. Part would center on a policy development role that convened, coordinated and dispersed expertise to identify issues and to agree on appropriate implications and strategies.

Today the issues seem more profound than in decades past. The next generation of traditional college-age people in this country will be larger (up 20 percent in the next ten years), more disadvantaged and diverse, and more interested in postsecondary education because they have fewer economic alternatives.

In the National Center's state-by state report cards for higher education, Measuring Up 2000 and Measuring Up 2002, the categories for grading are: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits and learning. The core outcomes in these areas will be more important to this generation than ever before. And lurking in the shadows is perhaps the most critical issue of all: How do we eliminate the grade of "incomplete" that all of the states received in the category of learning, because they could not measure or demonstrate what their students learned through the completion of their college education?"

James M. Furman is a member of the board of directors of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. This article was adapted from his remarks to the annual meeting of State Higher Education Executive Officers in July 2002.

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