By Stephen R. Briggs
Provost, The College of New Jersey
Though often neglected and sometimes maligned, mission differentiation is one of the critical "rules of the game" in higher education because it brings to the forefront the issue of quality as it relates both to the purposes of public education and to the scope and aspirations of specific institutions. Consider anew the five key questions from the roundtable, as viewed through the lens of mission differentiation, with an eye on the goal of quality in higher education.
1. Are public purposes clearly defined?
In this essay, it would be easy to reduce public purpose to the single goal of providing ready access to higher education regardless of economic means. But colleges and universities contribute to the public good in many other worthy ways as well. They serve as cultural, technical, and economic hothouses for the state. A vibrant and well-regarded institution helps establish the reputation of the larger community and acts as a resource magnet. Meaningful definitions of public purposes, therefore, must be multifaceted and mature as well as clear; they must recognize that the public good is significantly advanced by institutions that are highly regarded. In contrast, a one-size-fits-all approach to education precludes access to distinctiveness and value. The public is best served by an array of colleges and universities that are rich in variety and high in value.
2. Are fiscal policies and incentives aligned with public purposes?
Mission differentiation emphasizes the importance of allowing institutions to contribute distinctively to the achievement of public purposes. It implies that a state should root its support in the accomplishment of distinctive missions. Some forms of education are more costly than others-for example, medical versus legal education, residential versus commuter campuses, and science versus liberal arts majors. Linking funding to the accomplishment of particular objectives makes sense to the extent that these objectives are mission-based and consistent with the institution's distinctive contribution to the public good. Conversely, holding all institutions accountable in a simplistic way to a single set of performance indicators hinders the creative pursuit of quality.
3. Do tuition and financial aid policies contribute to increased participation and completion?
Different kinds of institutions offer different kinds of educational experiences that vary in price. There is no reason to assume that one tuition rate is reasonable or fair across an entire system. Remedial education can be relatively expensive, just as honors-quality science and engineering instruction can be expensive. A residential campus is more expensive than a commuter campus. Thus, it is important for colleges and universities to be able to establish their own tuition and fee rates to ensure that there is sufficient funding to support the educational endeavors of the institution in light of its mission. Need-based aid is of vital importance to ensure that students have access to programs that best develop their potential. Merit-based aid is also of vital importance for building the quality of the institution and convincing the highest-achieving students to attend an institution in-state. Merit programs are not just politically expedient. Private institutions use them as a means to build the quality and reputation of the institution. To ignore or vilify the use of merit awards is to surrender top students (of all backgrounds and means) to the private institutions (which use merit programs routinely) and, essentially, to accept second-class status. In choosing tuition and financial aid policies, therefore, a state must decide not only about access but also about whether it is in the public good to aspire to have nationally ranked institutions.
4. What role does the state interface agency play in the achievement of public purposes?
Interface agencies can facilitate public purposes by crafting policies that recognize and nurture the distinctive contributions of institutions. Instead of assuming that institutional aspirations are necessarily in conflict with the public good, the interface agency should help to demonstrate that public priorities often are achieved only as a function of institutional ambition and autonomy. The public receives substantial benefits from colleges and universities that are headed by vibrant and creative leaders who aspire to build distinguished institutions and who work in concert with other institutions to achieve state needs. Public institutions need to be attentive to the quality of undergraduate education, and interface agencies can help provide an objective assessment of whether a college is satisfying its intended purpose. As the accrediting agencies have affirmed, however, learning outcomes must be developed in the context of institutional mission, and there are no simple, uniformly applicable measures of this sort to be acquired off the shelf. In this regard, care must be taken not to confuse measures of learning outcomes with the performance indicators assessed in the Measuring Up report card series.
5. How does a state foster collaboration between higher education and other sectors to strengthen the infrastructure of society?
Most institutions eagerly embrace partnerships with other sectors in areas that are central to their mission. However, they are likely to resist (and not be very good at) partnerships that pull them outside of their mission. Once again, the best means to foster collaboration is to recognize and nurture the distinctive ways that institutions contribute. College and universities want to contribute to the infrastructure of society because they in turn receive from and are dependent on it.