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News Editorial Other Voices Interview

By Governor James B. Hunt Jr., former Governor of North Carolina
and Chair of the National Center Board of Directors, and
Patrick M. Callan, President of the National Center

James B. Hunt Jr.
AN OLD ADAGE in life and work says, “Be careful what you wish for.” Our wish and mission when we established the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in 1998 as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization seemed clear-cut enough at the time: address the transition of American higher education and its public policy infrastructure at a time of transformational economic and demographic changes. Our commitment was to the improvement and success of American higher education in its service to society, that is, to the examination of critical higher education issues from the “outside looking in,” from the perspective of society’s needs.

We got our wish, but of course, the more time you spend looking in, the more you see that needs addressing. And the more you grapple with the emerging national economic and demographic changes, the more you recognize their profound and complex implications for colleges and universities.

Patrick M. Callan
Like its predecessor the California Higher Education Policy Center and earlier organizations with similar missions, such as the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, the National Center was never designed to be a permanent institution. It was created to articulate and address a national policy agenda at a particular point in time—the early years of the new century—and we expected the National Center to operate for about ten years. We broke from this nice round number in order to complete a full decade of the Measuring Up series of report cards on the state-by-state and national performance of higher education, and to disseminate and follow up on its findings. This work will be completed next year, and the National Center will close on June 30, 2011.

Of course, in a broader sense, the work is never completed. Neither we nor our colleagues in this endeavor intend to retire, retreat, or otherwise diminish our efforts to strengthen higher education and its responsiveness to the needs of the nation and the states. We will continue this work from other venues.

We leave it to the future to assess the impact of the National Center. But as an organization charged with innovating and testing new approaches to public policy, we have learned a great deal. Here are five examples of innovations that we believe merit continuation by others:

Measuring Up remains the only publicly credible, publicly available assessment of national and state progress on the critical components of higher educational attainment: college preparation, access, completion, affordability and student learning. The initiatives to improve data that are currently underway, particularly on student progression and college costs, will create further opportunities to strengthen this work. And consideration should be given to calibrating the assessments and grades to normative national goals, such as those set by President Obama and some national foundations. The most critical lesson here is that an iterative, publicly accessible national and state report card is a powerful instrument for establishing and sustaining a national policy agenda, a “public agenda” for American higher education.

• For more than a decade the National Center’s Associates program has convened and linked emerging leaders in higher education and public policy for intense examination of critical policy issues.

• The five-state experiment with student learning outcomes followed up on the “incomplete” grades conferred on all states by the Measuring Up report cards, demonstrated the feasibility of an approach to assessing educational outcomes that is relevant to both institutional and public policy, cost effective and manageable.

• The unique longitudinal database on public and leadership opinion of higher education, a collaboration with the Public Agenda organization, has tracked changes in attitudes, some of them dramatic, over two decades.

National CrossTalk, our publication, serves not as a house organ, but as a vehicle for commissioning independent freelance journalists to describe many of the most important leaders, institutions, programs and policies, and as a forum for perspectives on critical policy issues.

Our experience has also reinforced our belief that in every era there is a vital role for independent voices. From both a substantive and a strategic perspective, organizations that bring a broad public interest perspective and that are not agents of interested parties, government programs or foundation initiatives, can contribute in innovative ways to the policy and educational discourse, as they have throughout the modern history of American higher education.

We are grateful to the foundations that have supported the National Center; to our Board of Directors, particularly for its stewardship of our public interest mission; to current and former staff for their extraordinary dedication, competence and creativity; and to the researchers and consultants who have shared their knowledge and insights with us. We are also deeply appreciative of those throughout the country who have used our reports, tested our ideas, and provided the feedback, positive and critical, that made our work better.

—James B. Hunt Jr. and Patrick M. Callan

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National CrossTalk December 2010



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