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