By Patrick M. Callan
THE WORLD OF PUBLIC POLICY in higher education has changed dramatically since
the earlier national policy debates in the 1960s and 1970s. And it is still changing.
What are the public purposes of higher education in America? What does American society
need from higher education? What will it need ten or 20 years from now?
These are the overarching questions that state and federal policies must address.
Shared assumptions about the purposes of colleges and universities have diminished.
Although there is little agreement on what the national agenda for higher education
should be, colleges and universities remain the major resources for the transmission,
preservation and creation of knowledge in Americaâs increasingly knowledge-based
society. The transcending questions of purpose are complicated by contextual conditions
in the public policy environment, including:
Volatile Federal-State Relationships
The intensifying debate about the respective roles and responsibilities of federal
and state government has direct and indirect implications for higher education. For
instance, even if the major federal roles in research and student financial assistance
are retained, what will be the impact of federal ãdevolution" of costly
programmatic responsibilities for health and welfare to the states? How might that
affect the future of state funding and support of higher education? These and related
issues have seldom been raised explicitly in the recent debates about state and federal
Higher Education and Social Stratification
Evidence is accumulating about income inequalities in America; about the contrasting
life expectations of those with college degrees and those without; and about the
differing prospects of those who have access to knowledge in a knowledge-based economy
and those who do not.
A college degree no longer guarantees the probability of a good job or a place
in the middle class, but it still gives its holder a place in line for one. In the
new, global, information-based economy, however, those without formal education or
training beyond high school are not even in the line. For individuals and society,
the development of human talent is more critical than ever to opportunity, social
mobility and national productivity. State and federal policies must assure this development.
Increasing Enrollment Demand
After more than a decade of relative stability, the nationâs high school graduating
classes will begin to grow dramatically in the late 1990s, and will continue to grow
at least until 2009, for the prospective students are already born. More than 3 million
young Americans will graduate from high school in the spring of 2008, contrasting
with 2.5 million in 1992.
Growth will vary across the states. A few will experience declines, but others
will have dramatic increases: California, more than 50 percent; Florida, more than
70 percent; and Nevada, more than 200 percent. Moreover, the next generations of
high school graduates will be far more ethnically heterogeneous than in the past.
As with enrollment demand, the extent of ethnic and cultural diversity will differ
among the states, and will be largely influenced by immigration patterns.
This tidal wave of potential college students is now progressing though the nationâs
elementary and secondary schools, but only recently have its implications for college
opportunity been raised by policy leaders.
Necessity for Cost Containment
The last major expansion of higher education responded to the baby boom cohort, and
took place during a time when public budgets were rapidly growing. The next dramatic
increase in student numbers, however, will occur at a time of projected federal and
state fiscal constraints and of growing public resistance to high tuition.
At the state level, fiscal trauma in the early 1990s had long-term implications.
A report on state expenditures in the 1990s from the Center for the Study of the
States identified the major shifts in state expenditures that had occurred between
1990 and 1994. The report pointed out that higher education was the big loser in
the battle for state resources, its share falling from 14 to 12.5 percent of the
total, as many states substituted tuition for state support.
Robert H. Atwell, former President of the American Council on Educationöthe
nationâs leading advocacy group for higher educationöhas warned that higher
education should not expect to increase either its current share of the Gross Domestic
Product or its share of state or federal funding until some time beyond the year
With respect to a major federal role, the support of university research, the
Presidentâs Council of Advisors on Science and Technology acknowledged in its
1992 report that, ãIt is unreasonable to expect that the system of research
intensive universities will continue to grow as it did during the periods in the
1960s and 1980s."
In this difficult financial context, both federal and state governments will be
forced to revisit their policy commitments to instruction, research and public serviceöthe
broad array of the benefits of educational opportunity beyond high school.
Erosion of Consensus on Financial Support
Earlier national consensus on the allocation of financial responsibility for higher
education has eroded substantially. There is little agreement on the appropriate
contributions of state and federal governments, students and families. In the 1980s
and 1990s, without any explicit policy debate, the nation drifted into a national
policy of heavy reliance on student debt financing of college. The escalating costs
of higher education, the financial pressures on government, and the economic distress
of lower income Americans require rethinking higher education finance.
The demands of the economy for more educated citizens contrasts with the growing
difficulty of access to, and the higher costs of, college. A national debate on higher
education finance seems required, one analogous to those of the 1970s, debates that
were stimulated by, among others, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and
the Committee for Economic Development.
An important first step toward such debate was made when 28 state and higher education
leaders from 17 states met in June 1996 to examine the future of higher education
Growing Concerns About Quality
Although access and cost appear to be the publicâs main concerns, those who
are most supportive of higher educationâs purposes and most knowledgeable about
its functions are increasingly critical of how well it works. Interviews and focus
groups with leaders in communities across America show a concern about the educational
effectiveness of colleges and universities.
In the early 1990s a prestigious national panel on higher education, the Wingspread
Group, asserted that ãthe simple fact is that some faculties and institutions
certify for graduation too many students who cannot read or write very well, too
many whose intellectual depth and breadth are unimpressive, and too many whose skills
are inadequate in the face of the demands of contemporary life." The report
went on to say that, ãtoo much of education at every level seems to be organized
for the convenience of educators and the institutionsâ interests, procedures
and prestige, and too little focused on the needs of students."
Whether accurate or not, the prevalence of concern would seem to require measures
to assure the public of the quality of higher education offerings. Although public
policy does notöand should notöspecify the content and design of instructional
programs, it does play a major role in the recognition and support of quality assurance
mechanisms, including accrediting agencies and licensure examinations in professional
Integrating Technology in Higher Education
Technology has already revolutionized research, and has had a major impact on college
and university administration. The questions are whether and how technology can enhance
quality and access, and can reduce costs to raise the productivity of higher education.
And what will be the impact of the growing facility with which teaching and learning
can now cross state boundaries?
Colleges and universities have been slow to explore and capitalize on technologyâs
potential, perhaps to their own ultimate disadvantage. A recent symposium on restructuring
higher education warned of the dangers of educational obsolescence and competition:
ãInstitutions that neglect technology will run the risk in the future of being
marginalized in favor of educational systems that more effectively serve a generation
of learners accustomed to the benefits of ubiquitous computing and communications·Outsiders
will use information technology as a lever to pry open a market that heretofore has
been the exclusive domain of colleges and universities·Ironically, the same
faculty members who are fighting against any substitution of information technology
for their labors may find themselves blindsided down the road by a much greater force
that simply eliminates their institution altogether."
A strength of American higher education is that college and university operations
are not centrally managed by state or federal governments. Yet public policy has
played, and continues to play, a major role in shaping the responses of the higher
education enterprise to public needs. It is not the only factorömarket forces
and the decisions of individual public and private institutions and non-governmental
patrons also are on the stage.
About 78 percent of college students are in public colleges and universitiesöinstitutions
created by, and financially reliant on, state and local governments. Government provides
51 percent of the financial support of public colleges and universities and approximately
17 percent of the support of private ones, accounting overall for approximately 38
percent of total financial support. Student financial assistance to students attending
public and private institutions provided by federal and state governments exceeded
$50 billion dollars in 1995÷96.
State governments determine the governing structures of public higher education,
and some states have established mechanisms for coordinating public and private higher
education. Historically, public policy has been critical during the major transitions
that have shaped modern American higher educationöthat is, the creation of land
grant universities in the nineteenth century; the development of the American research
university; the establishment of community colleges; and the GI Bill and the post-World
War II expansion of access and participation.
Public policy was a major factor in setting the course of colleges and universities
in the past. It will be a major factor impeding or supporting American higher educationâs
response to public needs in the future.
A National Policy Center
The nation lacks an independent policy forum for orderly examination of these
complex elements of long-term change and uncertainty. The national policy center,
to be established in early 1998 by the Higher Education Policy Institute, will have
two closely related and central missions:
1) The center should conduct public policy research and studies in areas relevant
to the higher educational needs of the nation over the next 15 to 20 years.
|Public opinion research commissioned by the American Council on Education
and the California Center in recent years found broad, but not deep, support for
higher education. They found the general public fixated on issues of access and opportunity
while, at the same time, opinion leaders were highly skeptical of higher educationâs
effectiveness, organization, financing and costs.
A recent study of higher education finance in the 1990s by the California Center
included national trends and case studies of five states. It found a pattern of ãpolicy
drift" at the state and federal levels: Without explicit policy debate, the
federal government has backed into a national financial aid system dominated by student
borrowing, and the states have shifted costs from the public to students and families.
Systemic changes in the public finance of higher education are occurring÷often
in response to short-term budgetary and political circumstances÷without analysis
or deliberation of the cumulative effects of these changes on the capacity of higher
education to meet state and national needs.
Population growth and demographic shifts in almost half the states will place major
demands on the capacities of states to maintain or enhance the level of opportunity
beyond high school that has been available since World War II. State and federal
financial constraints and the costs of maintaining current institutional and programmatic
commitments render the accommodation of additional enrollments problematic.
Yet few states have addressed the policy implications of the nationâs changing
demographics; even fewer have policies and strategies in place to meet the challenges
to opportunity that demographic change will pose. An independent organization can
play a key role in stimulating policy attention to these issues. In California in
the early 1990s, the issue of imminent enrollment demand was forced into public discourse
by RAND and the California Center.
Whatever general consensus may have existed in earlier decades about fairness in
allocating responsibility for paying for higher education÷across generations,
among individuals, government, institutions and families, and between state and federal
government÷that consensus has substantially eroded.
The recent debates on proposed federal finance initiatives reflect major differences
over the targeting and the form of new federal subsidies, even among those who agree
on the desirability of additional federal investment.
2) The center should stimulate public discussion and debate around the key higher
education policy issues that face state and federal governments and that influence
the current and emerging relationships of higher education and American society.
The national center will be a public forum for policy analyses, and for the engagement
of leaders from within and outside the education establishment with the role of public
policy in American higher education. The center will frame the issues that it addresses
from the perspective of the ãoutside looking in." This perspective will
allow it to articulate the broad public interest and public policies that will best
enable higher education to respond to societal needs and changes over the long term.
The national center will focus primarily on the ãpublic policy infrastructure"
of higher educationöthat is, on such questions as: Who is, and who should be,
served by higher education? How do, and how should, public subsidies, federal and
state financing mechanisms and state organizational and decision-making structures
encourage or impede colleges and universities in serving the public purposes of higher
Public policies, including those controlling governance and finance, are means
and not ends for achieving educational and societal purposes. For this reason, these
purposes must themselves be made explicit, refined and, perhaps, redefined as part
of the policy analysis and public discourse.
It is essential that the center have the dual missions of policy analysis and
public discourse. In earlier times, a general consensus in the states and in the
nation allowed those concerned with public policy to direct their studies, analyses
and recommendations to a relatively narrow audienceöthat is, to state and federal
officials and to leaders of higher education. Public support for the actions of government
and higher education were assumed as a given. But the broad, implicit consensus on
critical aspects of higher education has eroded. For example:
It may be argued that the erosion of consensus and the fragmentation of opinion
is simply an aspect of the general distrust of institutions that emerged during the
recent past, and not directly attributable to any failings of the colleges and universities.
Nevertheless, governmental and higher education policy leaders can no longer unilaterally
decide what is best for Americaâs colleges and universities. It is not a question
of whether their decisions are appropriate or correct. As the century closes, the
real question is whether any decision of substantial import for the long-term health
of higher education and for the benefit of the public can be made and implemented
without more explicit public support than was needed in the past.
To put it another way, policy studies and analyses are essential, but they alone
will not solve the problems that higher education faces. Today, the analyses and
their panoply of recommendations and options must be tested and refined by public
debate, discussion and participation.
As an independent and objective policy organization, the national center will
help overcome three problems that hinder the advancement of policy alternatives and
informed public discussion of them.
First, both educational and governmental leaders tend to apply a very short-term
perspective to the ãfuture" of higher education. Fo r many public officials,
term limits and the volatility of political careers cloud a long-term perspective.
Many educational leaders, perhaps understandably absorbed in financial crisis management,
tend to focus heavily on short-term budgetary issues. Todayâs operating crises
and tomorrowâs elections too often take precedence over long-term policy issues.
The result: short-term, ãBand-Aid" solutions, and inadequate attention
to long-term policy issues of great importance.
|The ultimate audience of the national center will be state and federal
An essential audience will be public opinion leaders and major business
and civic leaders who are concerned with higher education, and whose words and actions
influence elected leaders or the public or both.
An essential audience will be the media. Public policy formulation requires an informed
public, and the press, television and radio are critical tools for reaching both
the public and their elected representatives.
Higher education leaders, senior administrators, key faculty members and trustees
also will be an essential audience, for they can bring intimate knowledge of the
realities of institutional operations. Public policy needs the information and perceptions
that higher education leaders have, and, for these leaders, participation will temper
the almost unavoidable institutional status quo milieu in which many operate.
Second, policy research in higher education has been a neglected field over that
last decade and a half. With a few exceptions, little work is being directed to the
issues of national policy that America will confront over the next two decades. Most
policy analyses come from partisan political sources or constituency-based educational
organizations. Existing public agencies and educational, professional and political
associations have immediate institutional agendas that, however legitimate, usually
narrow or defer consideration of fundamental policy issues.
Third, despite their magnitude and complexity, long-term policy issues lack a
forum or process for sustained national debate on the purposes and performance of
higher education and its role in Americaâs future. The public interest perspective,
a view that encompasses the entire country and its citizens, present and future,
is frequently underrepresented in policy deliberations.
An independent national policy center can have a long-range perspective, can marshal
the intellectual capacity for the work at hand, and can be a forum for debate in
which the public interest will be represented. The center will seek to become such
a forum by reaching out to four audiences. These efforts will be selective or inclusive,
depending on the issues and the nature of the activity. The four audiences are:
The national centerâs publications should reach all of these audiences on
a continuing basis and will be designed to be accessible to a broad audience. Symposia,
forums and surveys should reach them selectively as dictated by particular policy
studies. The centerâs approach will be broadly inclusive, but not fragmented.
It can adequately serve the public interest only if it engages the key societal and
institutional leaders who are concerned with the future of higher education.
Major Themes and Core Activities
The national policy centerâs agenda and work plan will be organized around
a number of broad themes. Some themes derive from the conditions in higher educationâs
current environment; others would be present in any context. These themes will be
the pervasive and recurrent guides for the centerâs work, although not necessarily
the subjects of discrete projects or reports.
Three, in particular, will be of continuing attention: the costs and benefits
of higher education; statewide governance of higher education; and the public purposes
of higher education.
The Costs and Benefits of Higher Education
The most recent intensive national debate on this issue occurred in the late 1960s
and early 1970s. The center will revisit the Carnegie Commissionâs classic
formulation of the core finance issues: ãWho pays? Who benefits? Who should
pay?" The late 1990s iteration, however, must go well beyond the allocation
of financial responsibility, and must give greater attention to the appropriate costs
of higher education and to the mechanisms of support and public accountability that
are most consistent with achieving public purposes.
|The Roles of State and Federal Government. In what ways should the
relationship of government to higher education change in response to changing public
needs? What should be the relationship between federal and state funding of higher
Access to Opportunity. Is there a more cost-effective way to provide access to quality
in an era of greater constraints on public funding? To provide continued access to
quality, what funding mechanisms would optimize public and private investments in
Tuition and Student Aid Policy. What objectives should guide policies for setting
tuition÷in state legislatures as well as institutions? What mixture of tuition
and financial aid will assure broad access?
Technology and Market Forces. How can public policy or public investment work most
effectively in conjunction with market forces to ensure that technological advances
produce real enhancements of learning? Under what circumstances are public agencies
likely to be more equitable than the market in distributing access to, or funds for,
Linking Funding to Performance. To what degree should the funding of higher education
be tied to the performance of either institutions or students? Can linking dollars
to outcomes help colleges and universities overcome their seeming inability to realize
A national roundtable on the public and private financing of higher education
was convened by the Pew Higher Education Roundtable and the California Center in
1996. Its major purpose was to work out a national policy agenda on higher education
finance, and it posed a number of important questions about higher education finance
policy for the late 1990s, including:
The Roundtable also raised issues of privatization of institutions and functions,
and of whether performance outcomes would better assure public authorities of ãfair
value for their investments in higher education."
Statewide Governance of Higher Education
Recent reorganization of state higher education systems in several states, including
New Jersey, Minnesota, Alaska, Montana, Kentucky and Illinois indicate that the interest
of governors and legislators in higher education governance remains high.
There has, however, been no apparent pattern to these reorganizations. Nationally,
state governing structures appear to be unstable, and there will be a continuing
need for policy frameworks and structural options that may assist state policy leaders
in their search for constructive change.
The California Center has recently completed, with support from the Pew Charitable
Trusts, a seven-state study of the organization of higher education beyond the campus
level. The study included the decision-making roles of governors and legislatures.
The project differed from earlier governance studies in that its primary focus was
on the influence of governance structures on the achievement of state priorities,
as opposed to the traditional emphasis on institutional autonomy vis-à-vis
A policy commentary based upon this research will raise key policy questions about
state governance, and offer a possible, conceptual framework for assessing the influence
of organizational structure on the achievement of state priorities. The national
center will continue to develop and refine a policy framework for addressing state
level governance, testing it beyond the original seven states, and examining states
where major structural changes have occurred.
|Refine and advance the national policy agenda, continuing identification
of the crucial national policy issues facing American higher education, and framing
and articulating them from a broad public interest perspective.
Publish readable and incisive policy studies and commentaries to raise policy issues,
to examine alternatives, and to analyze choices.
Convene seminars and symposia on key policy issues to involve higher
education, government, and business and civic leaders as well as scholars and experts.
Stimulate public and media discussion and debate of key policy issues.
Be an authoritative source of information, commentary and analysis for policy makers
and for the media.
Develop, through its activities, new professional and lay leadership in higher education
Utilize targeted public opinion surveys and focus groups at national, regional and
state levels to understand public values and perceptions.
Issue a quarterly policy publication modeled after the California Centerâs
CrossTalk to report important policy developments.
The Public Purposes of Higher Education
All major public policies contain implicit or explicit assumptions about public purposes.
Many public policy debates over governance and finance are, in part, proxies for
disagreements about purpose. More explicit discussion about public purposes is a
necessary condition for more focused policy.
Issues of public purpose are not just internal to higher education, but encompass
the role of higher education in society. A conversation about purpose, therefore,
needs to include the views and perceptions of many people: the general public; opinion
leaders in the civic, business and government sectors; and higher education leaders,
including administrators, faculty and trustees.
As part of its work, the center will rely on several methods of public opinion
research to understand systematically the diverse views of these groups. By engaging
representatives of these groups in policy deliberation, the national center will
gain insight into the development of what Daniel Yankelovich has termed ãpublic
judgment," in the area of higher education policy.
To foster constructive change through its public policy perspective, the national
center should have the capacity to:
The national center will take a thematic approach to policy studies. The project
on public and private finance of higher education is an example of how the California
Center implemented this type of approach. The Center began by identifying important
issues related to a theme, then organized activities around those issues, and ultimately
developed policy products as a result of the various activities.
The Higher Education Policy Institute invites comments about this paper.