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By BrianNoland
he diverse institutions that comprise the
American systemof higher education are currently
operating in an extremely volatile policy environment
marked by shrinking state support for operations, rising
tuition costs, fluctuating commitments to financial aid, and
constant institutional efforts to garner essential resources while
concurrently reducing operating costs. While these pressures
are unrelenting, the demands on higher education to serve
the multiple missions of teaching, research and service have
amplified as states increasingly turn to universities to serve
as drivers of innovation and economic development.These
pressures are inflated by the growing state and federal focus
on productivity, college completion, and heightened calls for
As institutions struggle to adapt and respond to these
uncertainties, policy leaders have urged states to establish
a public agenda for higher education that is focused on
developing clear and consistent policymechanisms whereby
institutions work strategically tomeet statewide, rather than
institutional, goals. At the core of this call to action is the need
for institutions to work in a coordinatedmanner tomeet the
nation’s growing demands for higher education. Concerns
over this need have been amplified by the declining position of
the United States as a
world leader in human
capital production.
Consequently, critics
argue that higher
educationmust re-
evaluate andmodify
its mission so that it
meets the educational,
economic and
workforce demands
of the nation. Unless
institutions are
accountable to these
changing demands,
many fear that they
will lose legitimacy
and relevance
in the face of an
evolving educational
marketplace in which the for-profit sector is actively creating
and expandingmarket opportunities.
While there is an understanding and appreciation of the
need for states to forge a public agenda for postsecondary
education, there has been scant attention paid to how states
actually develop, implement and sustain an environment that
engages institutions in finding solutions to these broad public
May 2011
The West Virginia Experience
Creating a sustainable public agenda for higher education
policy challenges.The remainder of
this essay will focus on actions taken
by policymakers inWest Virginia to
establish a public agenda. While the
policy experience is unique to the
state, it contains a variety of elements
common across state systems of
higher education.
Creating a Public Agenda—
TheWest Virginia Experience
In 2006 the state’s coordinating
body, theWest Virginia Higher
Education Policy Commission, began
a strategic planning process that
resulted in the creation of “Charting
the Future: AMaster Plan forWest
Virginia Higher Education.” Built upon civic, corporate and
community partnerships, “Charting the Future” outlined
the state’s public agenda for higher education and focused
on addressing critical policy challenges facingWest Virginia
such as: leaks in the education pipeline, the loss of knowledge
workers, blurring institutional missions, increased student
debt, and changing jobmarket demands. Concurrently, the
state synchronizedmaster planning with the creation of an
incentive-based funding formula and the development of new
accountabilitymetrics for postsecondary education. Together,
these provided the basis forWest Virginia’s public agenda and
served to frame the conversation about the role of institutions
across the system in addressing statewide goals.
The public agenda inWest Virginia is predicated on the
recognition that the democratic and economic viability of the
state rests on educatingmore underrepresented (e.g., first-
generation, low-income, rural) students. West Virginia is among
those states with the lowest levels of postsecondary educational
attainment and the highest number of underrepresented
students. U.S. Census data demonstrate thatWest Virginia has
the lowest percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree in the
country, ranks 48thwith respect to the percentage of people
ages 25 to 34 with an associate’s degree or higher, and has the
sixth highest percentage of citizens living below the poverty
line. A recent study by labor economist Anthony Carnevale
estimates that the state will need to produce at least 20,000more
residents with postsecondary credentials by 2018. To reach the
more aggressive goal set by Lumina Foundation for Education,
60 percent degree attainment across the United States, West
Virginia would need to increase the number of adults with
postsecondary credentials by approximately 400,000.
Consequently, one of the initial steps undertaken to ensure
that higher education is accessible to allWest Virginians was
to develop partnerships with legislative and executive leaders
In 2006 the West
Virginia Higher
Education Policy
Commission began
a planning process
that resulted in the
creation of “Charting
the Future: A Master
Plan for West Virginia
Higher Education.”