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The Context: Higher Education Policy in the 1990s

The world of public policy in higher education has changed dramatically since the earlier national policy debates in the 1960s and 1970s. And it is still changing. What are the public purposes of higher education in America? What does American society need from higher education? What will it need 10 or 20 years from now? These are the overarching questions that state and federal policies must address. Shared assumptions about the purposes of colleges and universities have diminished. Although there is little agreement on what the national agenda for higher education should be, colleges and universities remain the major resources for the transmission, preservation and creation of knowledge in Americaâs increasingly knowledge-based society. The transcending questions of purpose are complicated by contextual conditions in the public policy environment, including:

  1. Volatile Federal-State Relationships. The intensifying debate about the respective roles and responsibilities of federal and state government has direct and indirect implications for higher education. For instance, even if the major federal roles in research and student financial assistance are retained, what will be the impact of federal ãdevolutionä of costly programmatic responsibilities for health and welfare to the states? How might that affect the future of state funding and support of higher education? These and related issues have seldom been raised explicitly in the recent debates about state and federal roles.

  2. Higher Education and Social Stratification. Evidence is accumulating about income inequalities in America; about the contrasting life expectations of those with college degrees and those without; and about the differing prospects of those who have access to knowledge in a knowledge-based economy and those who do not. A college degree no longer guarantees the probability of a good job or a place in the middle class, but it still gives its holder a place in line for one. In the new, global, information-based economy, those without formal education or training beyond high school are not even in the line. For individuals and society, the development of human talent is more critical than ever to opportunity, social mobility and national productivity. State and federal policies must assure this development.

  3. Increasing Enrollment Demand. After more than a decade of relative stability, the nationâs high school graduating classes will begin to grow dramatically in the late 1990s, and continue to grow at least until 2009, for the prospective students are already born. Over 3 million young Americans will graduate from high school in the spring of 2008, contrasting with 2.5 million in 1992. Growth will vary across the states. A few will experience declines, but others will have dramatic increases: California, over 50 percent; Florida, over 70 percent; and Nevada, over 200 percent.1 Moreover, the next generations of high school graduates will be far more ethnically heterogeneous than in the past. As with enrollment demand, the extent of ethnic and cultural diversity will differ among the states, and will be largely influenced by immigration patterns. This tidal wave of potential college students is now progressing though the nationâs elementary and secondary schools, but only recently have its implications for college opportunity been raised by policy leaders.2

  4. Necessity for Cost Containment. The last major expansion of higher education was in response to the baby boom cohort, and took place when public budgets were rapidly growing. The next dramatic increase in student numbers, however, will occur at a time of projected federal and state fiscal constraints and of growing public resistance to high tuition. At the state level, fiscal trauma in the early 1990s had long-term implications. A report on state expenditures in the 1990s from the Center for the Study of the States identified the major shifts in state expenditures that occurred between 1990 and 1994. The report pointed out that higher education was the big loser in the battle for state resources, its share falling from 14 to 12.5 percent of the total, as many states had increases in tuition and decreases in state support.3 Robert H. Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education, the nationâs leading advocacy group for higher education, has warned that higher education should not expect to increase either its current share of the Gross Domestic Product or its share of state or federal funding until after 2010.4 With respect to funding for university research, which has been one of the federal governmentâs major roles in supporting higher education, the Presidentâs Advisory Council on Science and Technology acknowledged in 1992 that ãit is unreasonable to expect that the system of research intensive universities will continue to grow as it did during the periods in the 1960s and 1980s.ä5 In this difficult economic and fiscal context, both state and federal governments will be forced to revisit their policy commitments to instruction, research and public serviceöthe broad array of benefits of educational opportunity beyond high school.

  5. Erosion of Consensus on Financial Support. Earlier national consensus on the allocation of financial responsibility for higher education has eroded substantially. There is little agreement on the appropriate contributions of state and federal governments, students, and families. In the 1980s and 1990s, without any explicit policy debate, the nation drifted into a national policy of heavy reliance on student debt financing of college. The escalating costs of higher education, the financial pressures on government, and the economic distress of lower income Americans require rethinking higher education finance. The demands of the economy for more educated citizens contrasts with the growing difficulty of gaining access to, and paying the higher costs of, college. A national debate on higher education finance is needed, one analogous to the debates of the 1970s that were stimulated by, among other groups, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and the Committee for Economic Development. An important first step toward such debate was made when 28 state and higher education leaders from 17 states met in June 1996 to examine the future of higher education finance.6

  6. Growing Concerns About Quality. Although access and cost appear to be the publicâs main concerns regarding higher education, those who are most supportive of higher educationâs purposes and most knowledgeable about its functions are increasingly critical of how well it works. Interviews and focus groups with leaders in communities across America show a concern about the educational effectiveness of colleges and universities. In the early 1990s a prestigious national panel on higher education, the ãWingspread Group,ä asserted that ãthe simple fact is that some faculties and institutions certify for graduation too many students who cannot read or write very well, too many whose intellectual depth and breadth are unimpressive, and too many whose skills are inadequate in the face of the demands of contemporary life.ä The report went on to say that ãtoo much of education at every level seems to be organized for the convenience of educators and the institutionsâ interests, procedures and prestige, and too little focused on the needs of students.ä7 Whether accurate or not, the prevalence of concern requires measures to assure the public of the quality of higher education offerings. Although public policy does notöand should notöspecify the content and design of instructional programs, it does play a major role in the recognition and support of quality assurance mechanisms, including accrediting agencies and licensure examinations in professional fields.

  7. Integrating Technology in Higher Education. Technology has already revolutionized research, and has had a major impact on college and university administration. The remaining pivotal questions include: Can technology enhance quality and access, and if so, how? Can it reduce costs to raise the productivity of higher education? And what will be the impact of the growing facility with which teaching and learning can now cross state boundaries? Colleges and universities have been slow to explore and capitalize on technologyâs potential, perhaps to their own ultimate disadvantage. A recent symposium on restructuring higher education warned of the dangers of educational obsolescence and competition: ãInstitutions that neglect technology will run the risk in the future of being marginalized in favor of educational systems that more effectively serve a generation of learners accustomed to the benefits of ubiquitous computing and communications. . . . Outsiders will use information technology as a lever to pry open a market that heretofore has been the exclusive domain of colleges and universities. . . . [I]ronically, the same faculty members who are fighting against any substitution of information technology for their labors may find themselves blindsided down the road by a much greater force that simply eliminates their institution altogether.ä8

A strength of American higher education is that college and university operations are not centrally managed by state or federal governments. Yet public policy has played, and continues to play, a major role in shaping the responses of the higher education enterprise to public needs. It is not the only factor; market forces and the decisions of individual public and private institutions and non-governmental patrons are also on the stage. About 78 percent of college students are in public colleges and universities, institutions created by, and financially reliant on, state and local governments. Government provides 51 percent of the financial support of public colleges and universities and approximately 17 percent of the support of private institutions, accounting overall for approximately 38 percent of total financial support.9 Financial assistance provided by federal and state governments to students attending public and private institutions exceeded $50 billion in 1995÷96.10 State governments determine the governing structures of public higher education and some states have established mechanisms for coordinating public and private higher education. Historically, public policy has been a crucial factor of the major transitions that have shaped modern American higher education: the creation of land grant universities in the 19th century, the development of the American research university in the 20th century, the passage of the GI Bill and the post-World War II expansion of access and participation, and the establishment of community colleges. Public policy was a major factor in setting the course of colleges and universities in the past. It will be a major factor impeding or supporting American higher educationâs response to public needs in the future.



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