The national conversation about policy change to support the transition to higher levels of educational attainment is in its early stages. There are as yet no real-world models to cite, analyze, or emulate. More attention to the policy dimensions of this transition is needed. At this point, the best means for assessing and improving the various approaches to public policy is through critical discussion and debate, and by elaborating on the design of new policies.
The policies for accountability, governance, and finance described above differ fundamentally from those on which states now rely for their education systems. These proposed changes would represent a major reform of policy for the states and the country. Change will not come easily, nor will it come overnight. Furthermore, the public policy infrastructure that produced the world's most envied and respected system of higher education will be vigorously defended against many of the proposals that we suggest.
The political obstacles should not be underestimated. State budget constraints are likely to continue well beyond the current fiscal crises. The public investments needed to increase capacity for education and training beyond high school and, ultimately, to raise levels of access and attainment will have to be found in a financially constrained, highly competitive budgetary environment (Jones 2003). Because large portions of the nation's potential college students will come from lower-income circumstances than prior generations of college students, excessive reliance on tuition or inadequate investment in need-based financial aid may create insurmountable obstacles to increasing enrollment, even if there is adequate college capacity. The need for higher education that is cost effective for the states as well as for students and families will challenge states to allocate their financial resources in ways that deliver high-quality higher education, as measured by student learning.
The tendency of more and more college and universities toward "mission creep," reducing the emphasis on undergraduate education, will also have to be curbed. And even in the face of tight budgets, incentives and financial support must be found for bringing schools and colleges together to develop multiple pathways to higher levels of educational attainment, for improving student preparation for college, and for easing transitions between schools and colleges. In short, purposeful and disciplined policy and funding strategies will have to overcome political inertia and resistance.
History suggests that initiative in public policy is a necessary condition for improving educational opportunity and achieving levels of educational attainment. Public policy greatly expanded access to higher education after World War II; it stimulated development of the world's greatest research universities; and it fostered the growth of community colleges. The suggestions offered in this paper call for public policies comparable to those that expanded higher education access and attainment in the postwar decades.
The goal today, though, is not to find a place for returning veterans in our nation's colleges and universities, nor is it to expand on a large scale the nation's capacity for university-based research. Rather, it is to provide at least two years of education beyond high school for almost every young and working-age adult who is motivated and able to benefit. With the commitment of political and educational leaders-reinforced by redesigned state policy frameworks-a dramatic increase in the nation's educational capital is feasible.