The issues and pressures facing higher education have changed dramatically since
the state and national policy debates in the 1960s and 1970s. And these issues are
still changing. What are the public purposes of higher education? What do states
and the nation need from higher education? What will they need 10 or 20 years from
now? How adequate for the next century are the public policies and system designs
that have been adopted and refined by states over the past half-century? What policy
changes--and what continuities--in structure, governance, finance, and accountability
will facilitate adaptations to new circumstances and expectations? These questions
are overarching ones that public policy must address.
At the threshold of the 21st century, public policy decisions must respond to
a wide variety of far-reaching changes taking place throughout society. The following
significant shifts will, we believe, have serious impacts on colleges and universities.
1. Higher Education and Social Stratification. Is the gap between the rich
and the poor widening and hardening? Evidence is accumulating about income inequalities
in America--about the contrasting life expectations of those with college degrees
and those without.2 More than at any previous time,
education and training beyond high school are necessary conditions for middle class
life. For individuals and for society, public policy must assure the development
of human talent, and higher education is more critical than ever to such development.
2. Increasing Enrollment Demand. After more than a decade of relative stability,
the nation's high school graduating classes will begin to grow dramatically in the
late 1990s, and continue to grow at least until 2008. Some sunbelt states will experience
increases as large as 51 percent. Only four states and the District of Columbia are
expected to have declines. Overall, the high school graduating class of 2008 is projected
to reach an all-time high of 3.2 million students, 26 percent more than in 1996.
This growth will occur when classrooms are already overflowing with students in many
of the most impacted states, and it will be greatest in states that are also experiencing
changes in the ethnic composition of their younger populations.3
Only recently have the implications of this potential tidal wave of new college students
been recognized by policy leaders.
3. Pressures of Cost Containment. The last major expansion of higher education
was in response to the baby boom cohort, taking place when public budgets were growing
rapidly. The next dramatic increase in student numbers will coincide with projected
federal and state fiscal constraints and growing public resistance to tuition increases.
Competition from other social services--the public schools, health services, welfare,
and corrections--will require colleges and universities to tighten their belts. In
this difficult financial context, state governments will revisit policy commitments
to instruction, research and public service--the broad array of benefits historically
associated with higher education. For states faced with growing demand for college
opportunity, whether from high school graduates or older citizens or both, new patterns
of public investment and cost containment are likely to be needed.4
4. Eroding Consensus on Financial Support. Earlier national consensus on the
allocation of financial responsibility for higher education has eroded substantially.
In the 1980s and 1990s, without any explicit policy decision, the nation drifted
into a policy of heavy reliance on student debt financing of college, implicitly
treating higher education as a private benefit for which recipients should shoulder
ever larger shares of the costs. An economy that demands more and better educated
citizens operates at cross-purposes with public policies that make access more difficult
and more expensive.5
5. Growing Concerns About Quality. Although access and cost appear to be the
public's main concerns, those who are most supportive of higher education's purposes
and most knowledgeable about its functions are increasingly critical of how well
it works. The competence of some college graduates and their capacity to function
effectively in an advanced economy is no longer taken for granted. Interviews and
focus groups with leaders in communities across America show a concern about higher
education's effectiveness. Public policy does not--and should not--specify the content
and design of instructional programs. But policy should include responsibility for
seeing that higher education performance meets public needs, and for recognizing
and supporting quality assurance mechanisms.6
6. The Powerful, Unpredictable Impact of Electronic Technologies. Technology
has already revolutionized research and has had a major impact on college and university
administration. How will technology affect the quality and accessibility of instruction
on- and off-campus? Technology is already stimulating greater competition and the
entry of new providers of higher education. And technology threatens the efficacy
and relevance of many policies that are predicated upon geography, such as institutional
service areas, regional accreditation, and, some would say, state boundaries themselves.
These wide-ranging challenges are not trivial. So formidable are they that in 1997
the Commission on National Investment in Education found them "a time bomb ticking
under the nation's social and economic foundations."7
The challenges are particularly daunting because so many are at the heart of public
policy, where both governmental and individual aspirations intersect with the resources
available to realize them.