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Points of Comparison
Posing the Questions
From Principles to Action
Reaffirming the Role of Public Policy
Appendix One:
The Importance of Mission Differentiation
Appendix Two:
Achieving the Public Agenda for Higher Education:
    The Role
    of the
    State Board
Appendix Three:
The Role of the Federal Government
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Page 6 of 10

Reaffirming the Role of Public Policy

The insights of the AIHEPS project, as tested and refined by our roundtable, constitute a powerful argument against the view that "market forces" in themselves will ensure that higher education institutions work effectively to fulfill a state's public objectives. In fact, what are commonly understood as market forces in higher education are not markets in the purest sense at all. As long as states continue to fund higher education institutions and subsidize students, institutions at best function in a quasi-market environment. No nonprofit university or college in the United States can be said to operate in the absence of any constraining force from state or federal policy. The environment for these institutions is most often a result of three factors: (a) a lack of clarity in the public and political arena about the public purposes that higher education should help fulfill; (b) the inability of state governments to fund their higher education institutions in the same degree as in the past, accompanied by an increase in institutional fundraising, competition for external research grants, and other entrepreneurial activity on the part of both faculty and administration; (c) a considerable amount of discretionary choice on the part of students, which heightens the competition among institutions for undergraduate student enrollments.

In such an environment, higher education institutions have strong incentives to define and pursue goals having more to do with advancing their own academic prestige or fiscal well-being than with advancing public purposes that justify a state's support of higher education. For this reason, states have an obligation not only to fund their systems of higher education adequately, but also to provide an explicit policy framework that informs and guides the actions of individual colleges and universities. No state should seek to impose a strict authoritarian collar on institutions; the remarkable strengths and achievements of higher education in the United States through the past half-century have been due in considerable degree to the autonomy that colleges and universities have enjoyed. At the same time, it is incumbent on states to convey clearly the public purposes that they expect institutions to achieve, and to create the environment that makes it rational for institutions to direct their energies and resources toward the attainment of those ends.

Both New Mexico and New Jersey have allowed quasi-market forces to be a factor in the evolution of their institutions; the example of New Jersey in particular suggests that it is possible for market forces to operate in conjunction with other factors in a state policy environment to produce results that serve the purposes of both institutions and the state. The important point is that market opportunity and institutional ambition not become the unbridled drivers of institutional growth.

Public policy comes about through a process that is often messy. Anyone experienced in the machinations of politics understands the need to guard against making the formulation of policy seem more rational than it is. To suppose, however, that the levers of policy cannot effect significant change in a state's higher education performance is an abdication of leadership and a resignation to the forces of culture and historical precedent as immutable drivers. In affirming the importance of clear and effective public policy, we underscore the need for a state's public officials to forge explicit ties between purposes, policies, and performance-not just the performance of individual institutions but of a state itself in advancing the public agenda through its system of higher education. What the Measuring Up report card series has provided every state is a means of gauging that performance-a context for asking the kinds of questions we have posed in this essay. If a state lacks the political will to ask the hard questions that link its educational policies to the outcomes that the system of higher education achieves, then the result can easily become a system of higher education that falls short of its potential, and in which the concepts of quality and effectiveness derive more from anecdote than from a coherent and explicit definition of performance in service of the public good.


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