In autumn 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (the National Center) published the first of its state-by-state report cards on higher education, Measuring Up 2000. Using multiple measures, Measuring Up 2000 graded every state in five performance categories related to undergraduate higher education: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, and benefits. State grades in each of these areas were calculated based on the performance of the best-performing states. As a result, Measuring Up 2000 provides each state not only with an indication of its performance in five crucial areas of higher education, but also with a benchmark of the level of performance to which it can legitimately aspire; top performance is defined by actual achievement in another state, not by some theoretical target.
The National Center's objective in publishing Measuring Up 2000 was not simply to evaluate states, but rather to encourage discussions by state policymakers about higher education policy and performance. The report card is a first step in creating demand for state policies that can improve state performance in higher education-but it is only a first step. It is important to recognize that Measuring Up 2000 is not a recipe book for follow-up action; poor grades suggest areas that need attention in each state, but they do not provide a blueprint for the kinds of policies that could be implemented to improve performance.
Now that Measuring Up 2000 has been released, however, what are the next steps states can take to improve performance in higher education? What kinds of actions are needed to ameliorate problems and build on successes? This brief report is intended as an introduction to bridging the gap between the areas of performance identified by Measuring Up 2000 and eventual policy formation.
It must be stated at the outset that a nationwide report cannot provide explicit directions to states concerning steps they should take; differences in history, political culture, institutional capacities, and deeply embedded policies and practices create conditions in which the issues raised by Measuring Up 2000 must be addressed state-by-state. The inability to provide ready-made answers does not, however, mean that no general guidelines apply. There are, in fact, several kinds of actions that can help states bridge the gap between identifying issues that need attention, and working to put effective policies in place. While recognizing that no cookie-cutter approach will work nationwide, this report describes the following actions that states can take to improve performance in higher education.
- Defining and analyzing the issues with greater precision. Before effective policy action can be taken, the nature of the problem must be identified in greater detail. For instance, if a state has received a poor grade in Measuring Up 2000 in preparing students for college-level work, what specific areas-science? math? reading?-are problematic? Are students taking the full array of academic core courses? Are enough students taking and completing Advanced Placement courses? Which student sub-populations are performing least well? Are they concentrated in certain areas of the state or in particular socioeconomic groups? This report:
An appendix offers examples of many data displays that are useful in highlighting key aspects of higher education performance.
- suggests a set of follow-up "diagnostic" questions that should be asked to probe more deeply into the nature of the shortcomings identified in Measuring Up 2000; and
- recommends some basic forms of analysis that will help to frame data in ways that will answer these diagnostic questions.
- Creating a policy environment for change. The information provided in Measuring Up 2000-and enhanced by analyses of in-state data, some of which are illustrated here-provides policy leaders with ammunition to pinpoint a limited number of issues most in need of attention and to develop consensus around specific state priorities. As states clarify the issues they need to address, there is a tendency to immediately create new policies to solve the perceived problems. However, the next most productive step is to review existing capacity and policy:
- A capacity audit assesses the capacity of the current higher education system in the state to address the needs identified through the process of answering the diagnostic questions. For instance, is there a mismatch between institutional missions (or locations) and current or projected state needs?
- A policy audit identifies existing state policies that have potential for enhancement or that are acting as barriers to improvement. For instance, do some state policies establish incentives-or disincentives-for the higher education system to meet state priorities?
- Formulating an integrated set of policy initiatives. This report provides examples of the kinds of integrated policies that can promote improvements in selected areas of higher education performance.
It is important to note that in this report, as well as in Measuring Up 2000, higher education refers to all education and training beyond high school, including two- and four-year, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit institutions. This report, as well as Measuring Up 2000, focuses on undergraduate education and training, not graduate education or research.
Long treatises can be-and likely will be-written on each of the key steps needed to improve performance in higher education in particular states. Until such detailed analysis is available, it is hoped that this basic primer will provide useful guidance to those states seeking to begin immediately to maintain and enhance their residents' opportunities for higher education.