Front Page

To Optimize Learning

Conjoining Self-Interest and Societal Purpose

Drawing the Strands Together

Excercising Leadership



Download Report PDF

Drawing the Strands Together

To optimize learning in the U.S. and its individual states necessarily involves a range of players, each with a different set of responsibilities. Critical to the success of any such initiative is the ability to weave together separate strands in a coherent fabric to achieve what every party understands as shared educational goals. There are several aspects of a successful strategy to draw together the interests of different parties in achieving such common goals.

Productivity and management of costs

A requisite step to gaining strong political and financial support—from state or federal governments, the business community, or students and parents—is higher education’s demonstrated commitment to using funds in responsible ways to foster effective learning and to fulfill the educational purposes that constitute the basis for public and private support. No effort to strengthen higher education’s fulfillment of public purposes can hope to succeed by calling for substantially increased funding as the first requirement for any concerted action. While increased funding for higher education could occur in the next several years, it is not likely to happen until universities and colleges demonstrate their ability to achieve desired results in effective and efficient ways.

Targeting of funds to purposes identified

It is often observed that incentives accomplish more than regulation in bringing about desired behavior from institutions both public and private. A collective strategy to improve educational results must first define the purposes to be achieved, then allot financial and other resources to the extent that institutions demonstrate successful attainment of those results. As noted above, the base funding that public universities and colleges receive from state governments, for the most part, has little relation to explicit educational goals a state wishes to achieve. A more effective strategy to optimize learning is one that links dollars to the achievement of desired results.

Measurement of outcomes in attaining learning goals

A core element of any successful program to optimize learning is a commitment to define the markers of progress, and to measure results according to criteria that have meaning and support both inside and outside higher education. Explicit standards of measurement must be devised that all parties understand and agree to adopt. Just as important as the measurement of results is the need to use those data to identify strengths and weaknesses of current practices, and to make changes as needed to improve learning results. There is no more telling sign of accountability than a demonstrated commitment to measure results and to use feedback to improve performance.

Coordinating many efforts to achieve educational purposes that serve the public good

Through the past decade a handful of states have exemplified promising approaches to achieving public purposes by building partnerships that engage a range of stakeholders in addressing educational challenges. New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Kentucky are examples of states that have made plausible inroads to developing partnerships in achieving shared educational purposes. Some recurrent themes inform the approaches taken by these states.

One component of effective practice is a state’s ability to respond to emerging challenges in a cohesive way, through actions that engage various stakeholders collectively in defining and meeting the educational needs to be achieved by a state’s universities and colleges. While the means of effecting alignment among often competing institutional interests may differ from state to state, every state needs the ability to exert a cohesive force among its universities and colleges to meet evolving public needs. By whatever means, states must work to mitigate the competition among public universities and colleges vying for increased support in state budgets. At best, states can draw their public institutions beyond the confines of narrow self-interest and engage them in the collective contribution to a state’s educational needs. Finally, states must be prepared, through their allocation processes, to support financially institutions that demonstrate success in fulfilling public goals for higher education.

In some cases the unifying factor may be a venue in which higher education leaders meet with members of the private business sector to take account of changing circumstances and needs. An effective, sustained dialogue between higher education leaders and representatives of the changing economic environment can yield a state system of heightened agility and responsiveness to evolving educational need. At best, the exchanges that occur from convening such perspectives both within and beyond the academy result in substantially improved focus on a shared purpose to optimize learning.