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Higher Education Governance
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The Context: A Changing Public Policy Environment

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.


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