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Good Policy, Good Practice


The number of college-educated and trained Americans must expand substantially over the coming decades, and growth must include quality improvement and cost containment. These national and state priorities derive from the participation of our organizations in hundreds of meetings, hearings, and discussions with state policy leaders, including governors and their staffs, and members of legislative committees, blue ribbon commissions, and state higher education boards and commissions. In recent years, the explicit or implicit subject of almost all of these conversations has been how higher education can assure that the states and their residents can participate and compete in the knowledge-based global economy. Doing so will require significant increases in the proportion of the population who have completed programs equipping them with college-level knowledge and skills.

Demographic and economic conditions of the early 21st century give urgency to this issue. The baby boomers, the largest and best-educated generation of Americans, will soon begin to leave the workforce in large numbers. Economic competitiveness and individual opportunity increasingly require a college-educated and trained workforce. Yet worst-case projections show that average education levels of the nation and of many states may actually decline over the next decade and a half. Other nations, our economic competitors for goods, jobs, and a high standard of living, are making impressive gains, and some now outperform the United States in many important educational measures. For example, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's most recent (2007) report, the United States now ranks tenth in the share of its 25- to 34-year-old population that has completed high school, and tenth in the proportion holding a college degree.

For the country and for the states, responding to the global marketplace will require a "ratcheting up" of college access and completion at rates similar to what was accomplished in the four decades following World War II, when opportunities for education and training beyond high school were extended to unprecedented numbers of veterans and later to baby boomers. Hundreds of new campuses were built, and virtually all existing ones were expanded. This enormous expansion raised the nation's educational attainment-the proportion of Americans who had completed college degree and certificate programs. In turn, this educational attainment became the foundation for national prosperity and the growth of the middle class in the second half of the 20th century.

In this new century, the challenge facing the nation and the states is not primarily one of building new campuses, but of enlisting our vast array of educational resources in another effort to significantly increase the numbers and proportions of Americans who complete degree and certificate programs. Substantial public investment in colleges and universities will be needed, and that investment must be directed to the most productive institutions, those that educate and train large numbers of Americans.

Part I of Good Policy, Good Practice offers examples of strategies, programs, and practices that our research finds can raise educational productivity. The examples cited in this report were compiled and organized by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. We offer these examples to inform policymakers of promising practices and policy leadership that support improvements. We particularly sought programs and practices that challenged the conventional wisdom that gains in educational productivity or efficiency must necessarily come at the expense of quality or access. The three strategies and the programs described are included because they are designed to enhance higher education opportunity, educational effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness. They represent broad pathways to improved educational productivity that can be achieved by:

  • Improving the preparation of high school students for college-level work and that of adults for college-level learning; and creating effective transitions between schools and colleges, two- and four-year colleges, and the workplace and returning college students.
  • Streamlining the educational process, including curriculum and course redesign, for greater educational productivity and cost-effectiveness; and adapting educational policies to reduce course repetition, to offer incentives for degree completion, and to assess and recognize academic proficiency acquired outside the institution.
  • Accommodating enrollment growth through institutions that focus on providing high-quality, cost-effective undergraduate education; avoiding "mission creep" and increases in research capacity that come at the expense of productivity and undergraduate growth; encouraging collaboration to address unmet educational needs and underserved regions; assuring effective utilization of facilities; and encouraging and creating new institutions and systems of educational delivery.

    These strategies are selected real-world examples, tested by practice. They are not a comprehensive or definitive inventory of promising ideas, nor do they address theoretical issues. Undoubtedly there are beneficial and cost-effective educational programs with which we are not familiar or did not include. We emphasize that no single policy or practice is a silver bullet for improving educational productivity or raising the number or proportion of college graduates. Every strategy for raising productivity, improving quality, and containing costs should be examined closely, and then adapted to the conditions of particular states or institutions. Most strategies, including our examples, can have a major impact on educational productivity only if implemented on a large scale, across many institutions or entire states.

    Part II of Good Policy, Good Practice describes the levers that state policymakers can use, directly and indirectly, to influence improvements. It is unlikely that systematic productivity gains of the magnitude needed—and that are possible with widespread adoption of the types of strategies identified in Part I—can be achieved without deliberately designed and supportive state policy frameworks. Reorientation of public investment, of statutes and regulations, of accountability measures, and, in some instances, of governance structures may be required to raise productivity. These policy levers are necessarily described in Part II with less specificity than the strategies in Part I. These levers are, we believe, relevant to most states, but implementation strategies depend on state context. Part II emphasizes the necessity of state policy support and, if needed, policy change. Without long-term state policy leadership and commitment, it is unlikely that even the most promising programs described in Part I will achieve the scale and sustainability needed for broad impact in both prosperous and lean budgetary times.

    Together, Parts I and II of this document present the solid base of experience available to policy leaders as they seek to raise the higher education attainment of state residents, even in the face of fiscal constraints. There is more experience and knowledge about improving educational outcomes and policy strategies than is often recognized. We urge policymakers to draw upon and improve these examples when they, as we believe they must, engage in development of state policies and strategies aimed at enhancing student opportunity and success while keeping college affordable for students and states. Good Policy, Good Practice demonstrates that states have tools—policy strategies and levers—to assure a viable economic and educational future for their citizens.

    Good Policy, Good Practice was made possible through the financial support of Lumina Foundation for Education as part of its "Making Opportunity Affordable" initiative.

    Lara K. Couturier provided valuable research support for this report.

    The authors welcome the responses of readers to this report.

    Patrick M. Callan
    President, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
    Peter T. Ewell
    Vice President, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems
    Joni E. Finney
    Vice President, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
    Dennis P. Jones
    President, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems


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