In 1972, the United States Congress allocated $10 million in the budget of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to "improve higher education." This budget allocation was all that remained of an earlier proposal to establish a national Foundation for Higher Education. The creation of a national foundation, put forward by the Nixon Administration, had been suggested by higher education leaders in many quarters. Perhaps most significantly, it had been called for by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education in its 1968 report, Quality and Equality; Clark Kerr, the chair of the commission, made many public statements in favor of establishing a Foundation for Higher Education.
Several other reports written in the late 1960s and early 1970s highlighted the need for reform and innovation, describing growing problems in higher education. Reports released by a task force appointed by HEW-referred to as the Newman Reports after its chair, Frank Newman-received wide dissemination and evoked considerable discussion. The first of these reports, released in 1971, emphasized the growing diversity of the student population and suggested that the needs of this population were not being met by higher education. Meanwhile, reports from other organizations were likewise calling for a new look at the role of higher education. These included a 1970 report by the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, and Diversity by Design, released in 1971 by the Gould Commission.
Conditions in the nation in the early 1970s were ripe for calls for improvement in higher education. The higher education student aid legislation of 1965, as well as the baby boom and the civil rights movement, had greatly expanded college enrollments, almost doubling them in a decade. People were concerned about access, both in terms of affordability and diversity. Questions had been raised about the effectiveness of higher education in meeting the needs of a changing student body and shifting societal needs.
These questions-along with rising costs in higher education-led many to believe that without some key changes in the near future, higher education could not meet its potential as a road to opportunity in America. These pressures also led people to question whether the quality of higher education had already decreased or would decrease in the future, as these pressures continued to build.
But the foundation proposal that had been sent to Congress, vigorously pushed in its early stages by Daniel Moynihan, special counsel to President Nixon, ran into considerable political crossfire. A second version developed by a planning group in HEW also died. When the smoke cleared, what was left in the ashes of the foundation proposal was a modest grant of funds to HEW in a section of the higher education reauthorization act entitled, "Support for Improvement of Postsecondary Education." It was a small consolation prize for those who had urged the establishment of a foundation. Yet it soon became clear that a phoenix had risen from the ashes.
Perhaps the most important feature of the new legislation was that broad discretion was given to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to determine how these funds would be administered. That this discretion was exercised in a manner retaining many of the intentions of the failed foundation proposals was central to the program's subsequent success. Perhaps the most important of these intentions was to create an organization with an identity separate from that of the large bureaucracy in which it resided. This is by no means easy to accomplish without legislation authorizing an independent structure. Nonetheless, both the HEW leadership and the planning group considered this a very important goal for developing the program. It subsequently became a primary goal for all of the initial employees of the program.
A first step was to agree on a name that immediately conveyed an entity more autonomous than a program. After much discussion, it was agreed that it should be called "The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education" (FIPSE). "Improvement" was chosen rather than "innovation" because the former term could include the latter and because FIPSE did not want to be caught in the trap of trying to establish that every grant was truly innovative. A few years later, while listening to a congressional debate about budget cuts, members of the FIPSE staff heard congressmen raising questions about the continuation of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. It was ironic that the first time Congress referred to FIPSE as an entity was in considering its demise. Fortunately, Congress continued its funding for FIPSE; in legislation several years later, Congress formally referred to it as the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
From 1973, the year of its first grant, to 1979, FIPSE supported more than 500 projects. In 1978, the NTS Research Corporation conducted an evaluation of FIPSE for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning (in HEW). That evaluation found that FIPSE had achieved considerable success:
We judge the Fund to have achieved substantial success in accomplishing its mission to encourage improvement in postsecondary education. To those familiar with evaluations of other federal education programs, this finding may be a pleasant surprise. It is not common for evaluators to reach unqualified summative judgements. It is even rarer for those judgements to be positive. Yet, when judged by any of a number of criteria, the Fund should be considered a success.
In their final summary the evaluators also wrote:
From these findings we have concluded that the Fund may be useful as a model for other federal agencies that attempt to encourage change.
What were the key elements of such a model? The 1978 evaluation reported the successes that FIPSE attained during its first five years, but it did not elaborate on how those results were achieved. For instance, the evaluation did not, nor was it expected to, provide an analysis of the structure or operational principles that were essential to FIPSE's success. Yet such an analysis could prove useful to private foundations or state and federal agencies that might wish to understand the reasons for FIPSE's early successes and, where appropriate, adopt some of its key operational elements.
Some of the staff members who had been part of FIPSE during its first five years agreed to review and describe the way FIPSE operated during those years. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education agreed to sponsor the project, and The Ford Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation agreed to fund the study. Virginia B. Smith, David O. Justice, and Carol Stoel were named as co-managers of the project.
The central task of this review was to examine FIPSE's operations during those formative five years that had been independently judged to have been substantially successful. The study was not proposed as an "arm's length" analysis, for it was not to be an evaluation of the work of the agency. Instead, the purpose of the study was to chronicle FIPSE's early structural and operational characteristics to analyze how it had achieved its results. For this it was necessary to include those people who had themselves been involved in the process, people who could provide a first-hand memory and analysis of the processes, principles, and other characteristics of FIPSE. The first step of the planning group was to involve as many of the early staff of FIPSE as possible in early discussions. These discussions therefore included the first director, the second deputy director, several program officers, and four grant recipients who received their grants during FIPSE's first five years. This group had as its task the examination of FIPSE in those formative five years.
This group met for several days to identify important characteristics to be explored and to plan how the analysis would be accomplished. The discussion proved excellent. Much more than a reunion of early staff and grantees, the meeting replicated both the feel and process of the early FIPSE staff meetings. By the end of the meeting, attendees agreed upon three products for the study:
The first two of these components comprise this report. The third component is forthcoming.
- An independent consultant, using focus groups and telephone interviews, would survey several grant recipients from the period covered by the evaluation. In addition, several program officers would be interviewed by telephone to provide an insider view of how FIPSE operated.
- Several of the early program officers would describe and analyze FIPSE's key operating characteristics as designated at the meeting of program officers and early grant recipients.
- A few brief articles based on these materials would be written for various publications. These would be targeted to particular groups, such as state policy officers, federal officials, philanthropic agencies, and higher education officials.
Virginia B. Smith