Introduction
 
The Context
 
The National Center
 
Major Themes
 
Conclusion
 
Endnotes
 
About the National Center

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The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

The nation lacks an independent policy forum for orderly examination of the complex elements of long-term change and uncertainty that face our system of public and private higher education. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has been created to fill this void. The Center will provide a public forum for policy analyses, and it will seek to engage leadersöfrom within and outside the education establishmentöin rethinking and reinvigorating the role of public policy in American higher education. By ãhigher education,ä the Center refers to all education and training after high school, including two- and four-year, public and private institutions.

The Center will have two closely related and central missions:

  1. To conduct public policy research and studies in areas relevant to the higher educational needs of the nation over the next 15 to 20 years.

  2. To stimulate public discussion and debate around the key higher education policy issues that face state and federal governments and that influence the current and emerging relationships of higher education and American society.

The Center will focus primarily on the ãpublic policy infrastructureä of higher educationöthat is, on such questions as: Who is, and who should be, served by higher education? How do, and how should, public subsidies, federal and state financing mechanisms and state organizational and decision-making structures encourage or impede colleges and universities in serving the public purposes of higher education? The Center will frame the issues that it addresses from the perspective of the ãoutside looking in.ä This perspective will allow it to articulate the broad public interest and consider public policies that will best enable higher education to respond to societal needs and changes over the long term.

Public policies, including those controlling governance and finance, are means and not ends for achieving educational and societal purposes. For this reason, these purposes must themselves be made explicit, refined and, perhaps, redefined as part of the policy analysis and public discourse.

It is essential that the Center have the dual missions of policy analysis and public discourse. In earlier times, a general consensus in the states and in the nation allowed those concerned with public policy to direct their studies, analyses and recommendations to a relatively narrow audienceöthat is, to state and federal officials and to leaders of higher education. Public support for the actions of government and higher education were assumed as a given. But the broad, implicit consensus on critical aspects of higher education has eroded. For example:

  • Public opinion research commissioned by the American Council on Education and the California Higher Education Policy Center in recent years found broad, but not deep, support for higher education. They found the general public focused on issues of access and opportunity while, at the same time, opinion leaders were highly skeptical of higher educationâs effectiveness, organization, financing, and costs.11

  • A recent study of higher education finance in the 1990s by the California Higher Education Policy Center included national trends and case studies of five states.12 It found a pattern of ãpolicy driftä at the state and federal levels. Without explicit policy debate, the federal government has backed into a national financial aid system dominated by student borrowing, and the states have shifted costs from the public to students and families. Systemic changes in the public finance of higher education are occurringöoften in response to short-term budgetary and political circumstancesöwithout analysis or deliberation of the cumulative effects of these changes on the capacity of higher education to meet state and national needs.

  • Population growth and demographic shifts in almost half the states will place major demands on the capacities of states to maintain or enhance the level of opportunity beyond high school that has been available since World War II. State and federal financial constraints and the costs of maintaining current institutional and programmatic commitments render the accommodation of additional enrollments problematic. Yet few states have addressed the policy implications of the nationâs changing demographics; even fewer have policies and strategies in place to meet the challenges to opportunity that demographic change will pose. An independent organization can play a key role in stimulating policy attention to these issues. In California in the early 1990s, the issue of imminent enrollment demand was forced into public discourse by RAND and the California Higher Education Policy Center.

  • Whatever general consensus may have existed in earlier decades about fairness in allocating responsibility for paying for higher educationöacross generations; among individuals, government, institutions, and families; and between state and federal governmentöthat consensus has substantially eroded. The recent debates on proposed federal finance initiatives reflect major differences over the targeting and the form of new federal subsidies, even among those who agree on the desirability of additional federal investment.

It could be argued that the erosion of consensus concerning key aspects of higher education policy is simply one aspect of a pervasive public distrust of institutions, and not directly attributable to any failings of the colleges and universities. Even if this were the case, the erosion of consensus has created conditions in which governmental and higher education policy leaders can no longer unilaterally decide what is best for Americaâs colleges and universities. It is not a question of whether their decisions are appropriate or correct. As the century closes, the real question is whether any decision of substantial import for the long-term health of higher education and for the benefit of the public can be made and implemented without more explicit public support than was needed in the past. To put it another way, policy studies and analyses are essential, but they alone will not solve the problems that higher education faces. Today, the analyses and their panoply of recommendations and options must be tested and refined by public debate, discussion and participation.

As an independent and objective policy organization, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education will help overcome three problems that currently hinder the development and public discussion of important policy alternatives regarding higher education.

First, educational and governmental leaders tend to apply a very short-term perspective to the ãfutureä of higher education. For many public officials, term limits and the volatility of political careers cloud a long-term perspective. Many educational leaders, perhaps understandably absorbed in financial crisis management, tend to focus heavily on short-term budgetary issues. Todayâs operating crises and tomorrowâs elections too often take precedence over long-term policy debate. The unfortunate result: short-term, ãBand-Aidä solutions, and inadequate attention to long-term policy issues of great importance.

Second, policy research in higher education has been a neglected field over the last decade and a half. With a few exceptions, little work is being directed to the issues of national policy that America will confront over the next two decades. Most policy analyses come from partisan political sources or constituency-based educational organizations. Existing public agencies and educational, professional and political associations have immediate institutional agendas that, however legitimate, can narrow and defer consideration of fundamental policy issues.

Third, despite their magnitude and complexity, long-term policy issues lack a forum or process for sustained national debate on the purposes and performance of higher education and its role in Americaâs future. The perspective of the public, a view that encompasses the entire country and its citizens, present and future, is frequently underrepresented in policy deliberations.

An independent national policy Center can have a long-range perspective, can marshal the intellectual capacity for the work at hand, and can be a forum for debate in which the public interest will be represented. The Center will seek to become such a forum by reaching out to four audiences. These efforts will be selective or inclusive, depending on the issues and the nature of the activity. The four audiences are described below:

  • The ultimate audience of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education will be state and federal policy makers.

  • An essential audience will be public opinion leaders and major business and civic leaders who are concerned with higher education, and whose words and actions influence elected leaders or the public or both.

  • An essential audience will be the media. Public policy formulation requires an informed public, and the press, television and radio are critical tools for reaching both the public and their elected representatives.

  • Higher education leaders, senior administrators, key faculty members, and college and university trustees will also be an essential audience, for they can bring intimate knowledge of the realities of institutional operations. Public policy needs the information and perceptions that higher education leaders have. For these leaders, participation in a national debate will temper the almost unavoidable institutional status quo milieu in which many operate.

The Centerâs publications will seek to reach these audiences regularly and will be designed to be accessible to the public. Symposia, forums and surveys will seek to reach the audiences selectively, as dictated by particular policy studies. The Centerâs approach will be broadly inclusive, but not fragmented. It can adequately serve the public interest only if it engages the key societal and institutional leaders who are concerned with the future of higher education.

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