The second major piece of guidance reflects the reality that there are multiple paths for achieving state priorities for higher education performance. Even when consensus is formed around a public agenda for higher education, individuals of right purpose and informed intellect can arrive at different conclusions about how to go about reaching agreed-upon ends. A classic example is the debate over improving access: should a state work to keep tuition low or favor a strategy of high tuition accompanied by sufficient levels of student aid? And there are other illustrations:
- Using incentive funding versus program funding to ensure delivery of instruction to geographically isolated students.
- Improving articulation versus encouraging enrollment in four-year institutions as a strategy for improving success rates of students normally considered "at risk."
- Emphasizing dual enrollment versus Advanced Placement as a vehicle for preparing students for successful college participation.
The list could be expanded almost indefinitely, but the important point is that there are always options in the ways that problems are attacked. Some alternatives may work out better than others-not because the solutions are inherently superior, but because they fit the circumstances better.
The encouraging observation is that if agreement can be reached on the overall objectives, there is usually room for political compromise in determining the specific tools to be employed. In the absence of agreement on the larger agenda, battle lines harden around the tools to be employed and the emphasis gets displaced from achieving something to doing something. The two-fold cause of innumerable failures of well-intentioned initiatives has consisted of:
- displacing attention from ends to means, and
- falling back on a single policy tool instead of maintaining an integrated strategy that employs multiple tools.
A related culprit has been the propensity to borrow solutions from states with similar problems but different circumstances (the "one-size-fits-all" approach).
To be successful at improving opportunity for higher education, it is important that:
- The problem be well understood and specified.
- A policy agenda with clear objectives be established.
- The size and nature of mismatches between need and existing capacity be explored.
- The circumstances that govern the array of potential solutions be well understood.
- The existing policies that represent barriers be identified.
- A strategy comprised of multiple components be devised.
- The agenda be pursued persistently and policies be aligned consistently.
With this recipe, progress can be made. Unfortunately, the results will not appear as rapidly as most policymakers might expect, or would desire.