In the United States, the primary responsibility for education lies with individual states. To be sure, the federal government plays an enabling role, particularly in higher education; its programs of financial aid and assistance create opportunity for millions of Americans, helping ensure that those who seek a higher education can do so regardless of their financial circumstance. But it is states that create the particular environment for education, not just in the primary and secondary levels but also in the domain of higher education. Through its system of public and private colleges and universities, each state plays a major role in determining the kinds of educational opportunities available to its residents.
In the course of two centuries, and particularly within the past 50 years, both the federal and state governments in the United States have invested substantially in higher education from a conviction that such investment serves the public interest while helping fulfill the individual aspirations of those who enroll. The enactment of the G.I. Bill after World War II and the passage of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 were notable instances of the federal government's commitment to ensuring that financial limitations would not become an obstacle to students who sought to pursue educational opportunity beyond high school. From the 1950s through the 1970s, every state invested heavily in building capacity to meet a growing demand for postsecondary education; this commitment led to the founding of hundreds of community colleges as well as a substantial growth in the number and size of public four-year colleges and universities. Then as now, the underlying theme of these public investments has been that education matters, and that success in K-12 and higher education is critically important both to individual advancement and to strengthening the fabric of society.
No two states are alike, however, in meeting their obligation to educate their residents for lives of productive engagement with society. Like the layout of streets and roads, the map of higher education in a state is often a function of histories and cultures extending well beyond living memory. The decisions reached in a particular state environment often have as much to do with personality and local politics as with any ideal conception of policy and its impact. Given the variety that exists among states, the United States offers a richly textured setting for examining the relationship between higher education policy and the educational results that different states achieve.
This essay derives from a roundtable of higher education leaders and policy officials convened in June 2002 at New Jersey City University as part of a larger research effort undertaken by the Alliance for International Higher Education Policy Studies (AIHEPS). A collaboration between New York University, the Autonomous University of Puebla, and the University of British Columbia, AIHEPS is funded by the Ford Foundation to undertake comparative research in Mexico, the United States, and Canada on the nature of higher education policy in the broadest sense, and the impact that a given policy environment has on higher education performance. On the basis of the AIHEPS research and the deliberations of the roundtable convened to test initial findings of that research in the United States, this paper proposes a set of key questions and recommendations to higher education policymakers as well as college and university leaders. We believe the issues outlined in these pages need to engage the attention of these leaders as they work to improve the effectiveness of higher education in their own settings.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has developed a promising set of criteria for gauging the performance of higher education in individual states in Measuring Up 2000: The State-by-State Report Card for Higher Education.1 Measuring Up constitutes a first attempt to compare the performance of higher education in all 50 states on a range of criteria in five broad categories: preparation for higher education; affordability; participation; completion; and the benefits that higher education confers to individuals and the state in general. While the performance measures it applies may not align in every respect with those that individual states devise, Measuring Up nonetheless provides a useful analytic means of comparing the results different states achieve using a common set of metrics. As such, the report card provides an important set of tools for testing key elements of the AIHEPS research.
Our roundtable focused on one component of the AIHEPS research that examined the policy environments in two states in the United States: New Jersey and New Mexico. Through an extensive series of interviews with state policy officials as well as data collection and analysis, AIHEPS researchers Richard C. Richardson, Jr. and Mario C. Martinez examined the relationship between the higher education policy environment and the grades these two states attained on the report card's measures. The purpose of the roundtable was to test and refine key insights that the AIHEPS research has yielded thus far. The participants in our roundtable included policymakers and institutional leaders from both New Jersey and New Mexico. Also included were several participants who brought experience and insight into the working of higher education policy in a variety of settings in the United States and other nations.2
1 Both the AIHEPS research project and the roundtable to discuss its findings took place before the release of Measuring Up 2002, an updated edition of Measuring Up 2000. This paper does not address changes that might have occurred in the two states since the initial AIHEPS research or the grades that the states received in Measuring Up 2002.
2 This paper does not provide a detailed description of the AIHEPS research itself, its methods, or its conceptual model. It does not provide comprehensive portraits of the policy environments of New Jersey or New Mexico or attempt a complete analysis of particular differences in their performance as reported by Measuring Up 2000. For a full accounting of these matters, consult the AIHEPS research publications, all of which can be accessed and downloaded from: http://www.nyu.edu/iesp/aiheps/. In particular, New Jersey and New Mexico: Explaining Differences in the Performance of Higher Education Systems provides a synthesis of the AIHEPS research findings on the comparative study of New Jersey and New Mexico.