By Aims C. McGuinness, Jr.
HOW TO SHAPE the structures and policies for an increasingly
market-driven, technology-intensive postsecondary education system will be one of
the most important challenges of the next decade. Other challenges that today are
testing state structures will likely continue well into the next century: the instability
in state government leadership, a weakening consensus about the basic purposes of
public higher education, and growing political control and ideological involvement
in state coordination and governance.
It is time for states to step back and examine the relevance for the next century
of structures formed for an earlier time. Some structures are still relevant. Others
have long outlived their usefulness.
Governing boards of public institutions were modeled after the lay boards of private
nonprofit colleges and universities which, in nearly all instances, govern single
institutions. Perhaps for this reason, many people retain an impression that the
pattern of a single board for a single institution is dominant in American public
In reality, 65 percent of the students in American public higher education attend
campuses that are elements of multi-campus or consolidated systems of multiple campuses
all under a single governing board.
ãStatewide coordinationä is the term commonly used to describe the
formal policies and other mechanisms that states employ to ensure that their postsecondary
systems are aligned with state priorities and together serve the public interest.
Coordinating functions have evolved over the years as the publicâs expectations
of postsecondary education have changed and as the underlying philosophy regarding
the role of government has changed.
There are fundamental differences, for example, in the philosophical underpinnings
of governmental policy between the 1960s and early 1970s, when many states established
new postsecondary education structures, and the period of the 1980s and beyond, when
centralized, rational planning and management approaches were displaced by more market-driven
ãstrategic investmentä approaches.
In the decade of the â80s, the roles of state higher education boards shifted
in fundamental ways as governors and legislators took far more aggressive positions
regarding the quality of higher education. The call for reform added new responsibilities
to state boards and, as a consequence, heightened the potential for state/institutional
The policy environment changed dramatically by 1990. As the economic crisis of
the late 1980s intensified, state leaders added a new urgency to questions about
the performance and productivity of higher education. The recession period of 1989
to 1991 became a key turning point for the state role in higher education. In these
new conditions, many initiatives enacted just a few years before changed direction
or were put on hold.
As states slowly emerged from the recession, they entered into a new period of
uncertainty in terms of their relationships with higher education. New policies began
to emerge, accompanied by a new and more penetrating questioning about the underlying
efficiency of the postsecondary enterprise. Questions about faculty workload and
faculty commitment to undergraduate teaching dominated legislative agendas. And states
showed a new willingness to pursue aggressive policies, including the establishment
of systems of ãperformance indicators,ä and new financing policies that
allocated a portion of state funding based on performance.
The 1994 midterm elections changed the political landscape, adding further uncertainty
and instability to already tense relationships between states and higher education.
State coordination was made more challenging by the election of governors and legislators
with more conservative views about the role of government and education, by the changes
in legislative control, and by the success of state referenda or initiatives to limit
taxes or change policies.
At first glance, the changes of the 1991÷97 period appear to be a series
of unrelated, disparate actions reflecting the politics and unique circumstances
in each state. A closer examination, however, reveals several common themes and issues.
The scope and intensity of the changes across the states suggest that new and deeper
forces also are at work:
Instability in state government leadership.
State coordination, as it evolved in the mid-1900s, presumed a degree of stability
in the structure and leadership of state government. One could easily identify a
small number of key leaders in each state who were responsible for shaping the structures
established in the 1960s and 1970s. The continuing success of the structure depended
on the ability of these people to remind each generation of political leaders about
why the structure was formed and the basic values that should guide state-institutional
Today, few of those who shaped the current structures are around. Many have passed
away. Others have retired from public life or have been swept out of office by the
drive for term limits and the shift in political control. The extent of political
turnover following the 1994 midterm elections led to the quip that, ãRepresenting
higher education to the state Legislature is like making a speech to a parade.ä
A broader public questioning of representative government underlies the public pressure
for term limits, for restrictions on the length of legislative sessions, and for
initiatives and referenda.
All these changes make the task of developing a constructive relationship between
the state government and higher education far more complex and problematic. To the
extent that the public sees state higher education agencies as ãjust another
element of the state bureaucracy,ä the agencies are vulnerable to the same disdain
as government overall.
A weakening consensus about the basic purposes of public higher education.
In the 1970s and 1980s a remarkable consensus existed across political parties and
states about the basic goals of public higher education systems. In most master plans
one could find references to a common set of goals. Most referred to access and equal
opportunity, diversity, and the importance of higher education to the stateâs
economic development and the well-being of its citizens.
This consensus about purposes and values is quickly disappearing. The major trend
in state policy since the early 1980s has been to emphasize outcomes, assessment
and links between higher education and the economy. Now, political controversies
about outcomes-based education and ãschool-to-workä programs in K-12
reform are spilling over into debates about higher education policy.
Growing political control and ideological involvement in state coordination
The previous two issues are undermining the credibility of state boards as sources
of independent, objective analysis and policymaking. A state boardâs strength
can be measured, in part, by its ability to develop a consensus among the stateâs
leadership around a long-term agenda. It can also be measured by the boardâs
ability to sustain that agenda over several political cycles.
In the past decade, several states modified their structures to give governors
a more direct role in appointing either the state board chairs or the executive officers.
The price for increased responsiveness in the short-term, however, is the potential
for a high degree of instability as political leaders and priorities change.
Trend toward boards dominated by representatives of internal constituencies and
a decline in ãlayä membership.
In the early stages of coordination in the 1950s and 1960s, many boards included
both lay members and institutional representatives. Toward the end of the 1960s,
however, many states either removed institutional representatives or reduced the
number to ensure a lay majority.
The changes in the past decade reflect a shift back to the conception of ãrepresentativeä
boards. In New Jersey, South Carolina and Arkansas, governance changes since 1994
have added representatives of institutional governing boards to the coordinating
boards. The boards in New Jersey and Arkansas are legally obligated to seek the advice,
if not the consensus, of institutional leaders on key policy decisions.
Impact of an increasingly market-driven, technology-intensive postsecondary education
There are a number of characteristics of the evolving system that are straining current
structures. Changes in the way higher education is delivered will require a fundamental
rethinking of traditional state higher education board functions.
It will be difficult to assign missions, identify unnecessary duplication or approval
programs based on geographic service areas. Funding policies based on credit-hour
production, and quality assurance measures based on traditional institutional characteristics
and accreditation will not longer be feasible. Data and reporting systems that assume
that most students attend only one or two traditional institutions will be obsolete.
These several issues exemplify the kinds of challenges that will face states well
into the next century. As emphasized at the beginning of this essay, these problems
will require fundamental rethinking about state structures and about state policy
as a whole.
State coordination of higher education is the most complex, difficult balancing
act in state government. There are no simple answers, no absolutes. While lessons
can be drawn from other states, there is no perfect model. Conflicts are the reality.
The challenge is to resolve those conflicts as close to the operating level (e.g.,
at the campus level or through cooperation among campuses), and as close to the real
problems, as possible.
Once issues rise to the level of the governor and legislature, political as opposed
to educational values tend to dominate the debate. Finally, what worked at one point,
with one set of actors, may not work at another point.
Systems designed for an earlier time are unlikely to be adequate for the challenges
of the next century.
Aims C. McGuinness, Jr. is Senior Associate at the National Center for Higher
Education Management Systems, in Boulder, Colorado.
This article was excerpted from the State Postsecondary Education Structures
Source Book. Denver: Education Commission of the States (Fall 1997).