Although it might be useful to involve individuals or organizations from outside the state in some aspects of setting a public agenda for higher education, states can initiate and sustain the work themselves. The approach of the National Collaborative for Higher Education Policy was consistent in all five states that we worked with formally. This approach included five main activities:
1. Appoint a leadership group
The governor should appoint a group of leaders from business, the executive and legislative branches of government, and education to oversee the process and to reach agreement on a policy agenda. If the governor does not accept this step as a high priority, then it might be appropriate to consider whether the state's effort to set a public agenda for higher education is politically feasible. The leadership group should be comprised of state leaders who will create and then support the agenda from its initial development through implementation. We recommend that this be an informal group that meets for candid conversation, since "blue ribbon" commission members tend to arrive with obligations to constituent groups and typically feel called upon to make pronouncements. The governor should chair the leadership group.
2. Ground the agenda and its priorities in the needs of state residents
In identifying the needs of state residents for higher education, start with the framework provided in the Measuring Up report card series and with your state's grades and performance highlighted in Measuring Up 2006. Supplement that information with data from the Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis (www.higheredinfo.org) from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, to get a better picture of regional variations within the state and among subpopulations (for example, income groups, and racial and ethnic groups). Augment these sources of national data with data from your own state and from other sources, depending on your needs.
Present the data to the leadership group in order to reach agreement on a preliminary public agenda: the first attempt to describe the condition of the state, the areas in which change and improvement are most needed, and the specific responsibilities of higher education in meeting the state's priorities. The preliminary public agenda articulates a common understanding of state needs across geographic regions and subpopulations, based on actual data rather than assumptions, conventional wisdom, or folklore. Adopting a preliminary public agenda may require more than one meeting, as you might need to include additional data and analysis. In the states we worked with, each state achieved a preliminary public agenda within three meetings.
Work with the leadership group to agree upon the highest-priority needs.
3. Complete a higher education policy audit
This is an assessment of the policies currently in place and the extent to which they contribute to, or inhibit, the state's ability to meet its highest-priority needs as identified in the public agenda.
Higher education institutions operate within a web of policies and procedures that have accumulated over time and may have been implemented to address issues that are no longer relevant. But the policies and procedures still shape institutional behavior, with results that may now be unsatisfactory and need to be changed. Before suggesting new policies, you should review the current array. This procedure typically has three major components:
- Review existing policies—particularly those most obviously connected to the areas of priority established in the state agenda and those that are inherent in the budget process. When budget policies conflict with other policies, the budget policies typically prevail.
- Pay particular attention to the relationships among policies that affect institutional financial support, student financial aid, and tuition. A generous financial aid policy, for instance, can be undercut by a tuition policy that permits institutions to raise the price as financial aid increases.
- Solicit feedback from experienced individuals who can identify policies that are not working. This assists in understanding the problems that stem from existing policies and in building a broad consensus about state priorities.
4. Meet with key people throughout the state
Meet with a wide range of individuals about policies that influence—either positively or negatively—individual or institutional behaviors. These stakeholders include college and university presidents and senior administrators; faculty; key legislators and their higher education staff; staff from student financial aid agencies; K–12 administrators and teachers; other state agency personnel whose work affects higher education; employers; economic development and Chamber of Commerce personnel; and community leaders.
If possible, meet in small groups, which can encourage the exchange of perceptions and ideas among policy leaders (occasionally they are surprised by how differently they and their colleagues view the same issues). This can also build trust among diverse interest groups. It is important that those interviewed include persons from outside higher education so that state leaders can get a clear picture of how higher education serves the public's interest.
During these meetings, share the data and analyses that the leadership group used to develop its preliminary public agenda and ask whether the priorities are appropriate for the region in which you are meeting. Ask questions such as:
5. Report back to the leadership group, finalize the public agenda, and assign responsibilities
- Do the data that led to the preliminary public agenda reveal an accurate picture of your part of the state? Does this public agenda and higher education's responsibilities within it make sense to you? Why or why not?
- What high-priority items can you identify that are not being pursued?
- What current policies or procedures provide incentives for institutions to behave in ways that support the proposed agenda? What current incentives encourage them to behave in ways contrary to the proposed agenda?
After completing the policy audit and after meeting with individuals and groups throughout the state about the preliminary public agenda, report back to the leadership group on the findings and forge agreement around a revised statewide public agenda. At this stage it is crucial to affirm priorities and agree upon strategies to implement the plan. The leadership group should assign appropriate responsibilities to the key participants, most of whom will be represented at the table: the governor and the executive branch, the legislature, the business community, the state higher education agency, and the institutions.