The Policy Structure
An Agenda For The National Center
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Challenges and Opportunities Facing Higher Education
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An Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

The list of questions contained in this paper is long and challenging. Taken separately these questions could do more to obfuscate than clarify the nature of a research agenda for the National Center. Considering these questions as part of a larger whole, however, brings a much sharper picture into focus. The central task is to:

develop a restructured approach to state policymaking in postsecondary education that transforms current provider-oriented policy tools into mechanisms deliberately designed to incorporate newer client-centered perspectives.

An alternative phrasing might be to:

develop an approach to state policymaking in postsecondary education that recognizes the simultaneous need to: (1) sustain and enhance colleges and universities as key state assets; and (2) use the educational marketplace in ways that will assure that these assets are used efficiently to serve the needs of individuals, employers, local communities, and the larger society.

Regardless of the specific framing of the issue, some fundamental needs must be attended if progress is to be made.

1. New Ideas and Conceptual Structures
The cadre of individuals actively engaged in public policy research and development on the issues identified in this paper is small--in the U.S. and worldwide. This limits the amount of work being done on these topics. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to create an informal network of colleagues whose work can be made more symbiotic and reinforcing. Key to harnessing this energy will be the development of conceptual papers that:

  • describe the emerging environment in ways that bring coherence to how problems are being defined, and eventually some order to findings and observations that result from attempts to respond to these problems; and

  • posit the ways in which the available set of policy tools will have to be modified--in form and use--to be effective in this environment. A critical task will be to articulate a revised set of policy tools that are internally consistent and mutually reinforcing.

At least initially, this conceptual work should be designed to fuel discussions and reflections on the part of that small cadre of individuals who are engaged in public policy research on these topics worldwide.

2. Formulating a Public Agenda
In the final analysis, most conversations about policy tools are discussions about means--about how something is to be accomplished. Far too often, adoption of new means-oriented tools proceeds without a clear understanding of the ends to be achieved through such application. This is particularly a problem when the political consensus around objectives has eroded, and when recitation of the previous rhetoric about commitment to access, quality, and efficiency is belied by actions that refute the words. Even those political jurisdictions that affirm their commitment to higher education need to more clearly address questions regarding access for whom, quality as measured how, and efficiency in what domains.

In no way can the National Center presume to establish the public agendas for each of the 50 states. Ideas and information, however, can be presented to policymakers in ways that bring more client-centered objectives into consideration, and new thinking about the substance of public agendas into open forums. Well-designed approaches to both public opinion information and state-level "indicators" are means that can combine new conceptual ideas with the tangibility it takes to capture attention and broaden understanding.

3. Experience and Action-Research
At any one time, the political and educational leaders in only a limited number of states are committed to fundamental changes in the policy environment affecting postsecondary education. In most of these states, individuals or organizations who focus on public policy research and development are engaged as active participants in the change process. It would be a boon to all participants if the National Center staff could join in these processes--as chroniclers, but more importantly as fellow shapers of the policy products that result. This collaboration could add substance to the conceptual ideas, and texture and color to the materials prepared for use by state policy leaders.

4. "Good Practice" in the Design and Use of Policy Tools
At the conceptual level, even the best ideas are unlikely to be adopted and implemented in a world where policymaking is decentralized. There is a huge need for recommendations as to "good practice" in the deliberate use of available policy tools (e.g., budget, information, accountability, governance) in a more client-centered environment. These recommendations, at a minimum, should address:

  • suggestions as to the nature of sound policies,

  • procedures for implementing novel policy ideas, and

  • suggested points of policy integration (i.e., descriptions of how a given policy affects and is affected by other policies in a given context).

This focus on products describing good practices is especially suggested because there are numerous forums--conducted by national organizations such as the Education Commission of the States (ECS), the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and the National Governors' Association (NGA), and by regional higher education organizations such as the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE)--in which educational policymakers convene to discuss issues and policies. Most such discussions, however, lack real conceptual guidance. There is thus a critical need for a set of tangible proposals--less concrete than "model legislation" but more specific than "concept papers"--to guide the complex process of policy development. Current information, in contrast, generally takes the form of "show and tell"--sharing individual state actions and experiences with others without the benefit of a conceptual base from which to judge past actions or to shape future ones. This leads to frequently sharing bad practices as well as occasionally sharing good ones.

As noted, documenting "good practice" is particularly important in this age of term limits. With rapid turnover in political leadership in many states, products that can provide the basis for institutionalizing good practice are especially germane. For example, a budget structure that institutionalizes funding for state priorities and for the renewal of key assets might transcend the political vagaries resulting from a changing legislature. Another example might be an annual meeting between educational and political leaders to discuss a proposed public agenda for postsecondary education, providing information about progress on a previous agenda and suggesting changes for future years. Such practices would not preempt a given state's ability to address specific needs within a more general policy framework. Their widespread dissemination would help to ensure that key areas of higher education policymaking are kept at the forefront, despite the inexperience of a constantly changing cast of political players.

A corollary to the development and documentation of "good practices" is the need to communicate these ideas concretely through illustrations of how particular policy tools can be applied to specific issues in specific policy contexts. These illustrations would be most useful if they were based on case studies of actual situations, described in the context of a broader conceptual model, with the strengths and weaknesses of the resultant policies diagnosed against principles of good practice. Specially constructed scenarios reflecting easily recognizable state policy conditions might be developed to supplement or communicate the findings of such studies. Throughout, the focus should be on the importance of policy consistency and integration.

5. Commentary on the Inevitable Fads
Policymaking about higher education occurs more frequently through borrowing solutions (to another state's problems) than through crafting solutions specifically appropriate to local conditions. Witness the spread of Hope Scholarship programs, performance funding, etc. The National Center is in a unique position to comment on these emerging fads, especially if it stands on sound conceptual ground when doing so. This suggests, again, that the National Center be attentive to the conceptual base and to the specific policies that emerge from annual legislative sessions, as grist for an ongoing dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of those policies.

As noted at the outset of this section, attempts to deal with all the issues raised in this paper creates an unmanageable agenda. However, the National Center is in the unique position of being able to:

  • further the overall conceptual structure so that work on component parts can be pursued by interested and capable policy researchers in other organizations, and

  • communicate good ideas to audiences beyond the reach of these other policy analysts and researchers.

The enumerated agenda items in this section suggest ways this particular advantage could be made tangible.



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