Making Decisions That Influence Higher Education

Making Decisions That Influence Higher Education

A system by definition is a collection of subsystems that takes one or more kinds of inputs and creates an output that has value to the larger system of which it is in turn a part. For purposes of this study, we defined a higher education system to include the public and private postsecondary institutions within a state as well as the arrangements for regulating, coordinating and funding them. We considered any institution or collection of institutions overseen by a governing board as a subsystem. Over time, the interplay of reserved and delegated powers shape the key inter-relationships among such forces and pressures as physical structure, reward systems, values and beliefs, work processes, unwritten rules, written rules, and information flows.


Higher education systems operate within a contextual environment that includes historical factors, state government, political culture, an economy, a geography, and population demographics. These elements reflect or contribute to individual needs and expectations, a labor market, and patterns of resource allocation. Higher education subsystems are linked to each other and to state government through a transactional interface that both the state and the higher education subsystems influence, but neither control. This transactional environment is dominated by work processes that involve some actors representing state government and others representing higher education. Our study identified four work processes that differentiate transactional environments among the study states:


–    Assessing system performance in relation to state priorities provides information about the extent to which current educational inputs and outcomes reflect state priorities.

–    Budgeting enables state governments to negotiate with institutions to achieve state priorities. Budget language often calls attention to priorities without changing system arrangements for financing.

–    Program planning determines the availability, quality, and location of educational programs and services. Planning that is done for the entire system can produce very different results from planning done by each subsystem.

–    Articulation and collaboration refer to the extent to which higher education institutions see themselves as a system and work together in such tasks as student transfer. These terms also refer to the extent to which postsecondary institutions work closely with the schools that furnish their incoming students.


Some states have established coordinating boards or planning agencies to work with state government. In others, subsystem governing boards for single or multiple institutions work directly with elected leaders or their representatives. While actors from both the contextual and institutional environments move into the interface as circumstances dictate, system governing boards, coordinating boards and planning agencies rarely stray from this arena. The default structure for interface work processes is voluntary coordination. We refer to the sum of a state’s decisions about structure and work processes for higher education as its governance structure.


We began the cross-case analysis by writing integrating questions designed to organize data from the case reports around the elements of the conceptual framework and our original research questions. The case reports for each state were then used to answer the questions and to develop an interpretive synthesis to serve as the source of data for answering the research questions. The integrating questions are listed below:


System Design


  1. What state powers have been delegated to higher education governing boards? Which ones have been reserved to state government or a systemwide governing or coordinating agency?
  2. Does the higher education system make available to state government and to the general public useful and credible information about characteristics, costs, and performance? Who collects this information? Who disseminates it?
  3. How are institutional missions defined and modified? What arrangements exist for monitoring program quality and productivity and for limiting unnecessary program duplication?
  4. Who is responsible for allocating resources appropriated by state government to higher education institutions? Are resources allocated in ways that contribute to the attainment of state priorities?
  5. How does the system encourage collaboration across institutional types and groupings? Who is responsible for reducing barriers to student transfer across institutional types and groupings?
  6. To what extent does the interface facilitate or require the active participation of private higher education in the discussion of state policy issues?




  1. What are the respective roles of the Governor and the Legislature in making decisions that influence higher education?
  2. How have other historical factors (e.g., constitutional status, court orders, voter initiatives, master plans) influenced the relationship between state government and higher education?
  3. Have there been recent changes in the contextual environment that suggest to the research team the need for more than incremental responses from the higher education system:
  4. competition for available resources?
  5. fluctuations in the state economy?
  6. changing demand for higher education?
  7. increasing diversity among the student population?
  8. Do elected state leaders identify and actively support priorities for higher education?


System Performance


  1. From the perspective of elected state leaders, how responsive is higher education to state priorities?
  2. How effective has the system been in identifying and responding to contextual change?
  3. How effective has the system been in balancing institutional and systemwide priorities when these priorities conflict?
  4. How efficient is the system in terms of operating costs per full-time equivalent (FTE) student?
  5. What level of access does the system provide in terms of the proportions of high school graduates starting college anywhere?
  6. How successful is the public system in enrolling and graduating students from minority backgrounds in comparison with their white counterparts?
  7. How affordable is the system when tuition and student aid are taken into consideration?
  8. How successful is the system in achieving high retention and graduation rates among undergraduates?
  9. What range of institutional choices does the system provide to undergraduate students?


Social organizations as complex and as decentralized as the higher education system in America come close to defying rational analysis. No person or agency is in control of the system in any meaningful sense, and simple inertia tends to keep each college and university doing what it did yesterday, or the year before. The environment in which the system functions, however, is undergoing dramatic change, and is likely to continue changing in ways that are only partly predictable. In such an unstable operating environment, it is not obvious what “status quo” means, even though this should be the simplest option to describe. Thus, our task is to be clear about what this option might mean for higher education.


What most strikes an observer of the recent American experience is the absence of any clearly defined strategic perspective guiding decisions at either the state or system levels. There is widespread, if rarely voiced, awareness that the social contract is breaking down, and that it no longer guides policymaking or resource allocation, but nothing has been put in its place.

Student fees are set annually with increases as large as possible, and surcharges for graduate and professional programs are developed on an ad hoc basis to augment campus revenue. A percentage of annual fee increases is set aside by campuses for increased need-based financial aid, but much of that aid is directed to graduate students, amid disagreement about what was intended. Several campuses close admissions early in the recruiting year, only to scramble in the summer to fill empty seats. With due allowance for human frailty and trying times, one searches in vain for any strategic vision operating here. Indeed, the most accurate way to characterize the “status quo” option is simply the continuation of incremental decision-making and resource allocation, unguided by any long-run strategic plan. Reaction and counter-reaction is the game, and pity the poor student or parent who seeks to make sense of it and plan for higher education.


One might argue that the absence of a strategy is itself a kind of strategy, in that the players keep their options open at all times, responding as needed to each unpleasant surprise or shock to the system. In the short-run, when the operating environment is changing rapidly and long-run forces are not clear, this non-strategy may even be the best approach. Arguably, that description fits the American experience of recent years. But when the clouds lift, and broad patterns become obvious-as they have-then a more strategic course of action is surely to be preferred.


Inferior it may be, but that is no guarantee that it will not happen. It is worth spending a few moments, therefore, contemplating the results of such a choice. Let us assume that we continue to exert minimal leadership or policy direction for the campuses, and that in exchange for this freedom, campuses accept a continuing slide in state appropriations. One can understand how such a Faustian bargain might well be struck. In such a world, campus leaders could be expected to pursue other sources of revenue aggressively, and rising student fees will continue to be the most obvious source. With state appropriations uncoupled from enrollment levels, campuses will have little incentive to grow until fees reach such a level that they cover at least the marginal costs of additional enrollment. To the extent that increased enrollment lowers this measure, campuses will resist expansion. In this world, enrollments may not fall much below current levels. Those who do enroll will increasingly be drawn from families with sufficient financial resources to meet the rising student charges.


The economic forces and resulting decisions guiding the system under the “status quo” option are reasonably clear and predictable; the potential political reaction, however, is not. A growing number of potential students will be denied admission to public campuses, and although some will attend private colleges or enroll out of state, most will lose out entirely. Perhaps their discontent can be contained; perhaps good jobs with decent prospects for high school graduates will suddenly materialize; perhaps military needs will increase sharply and absorb the overflow. It seems more likely, however, that unemployment will rise sharply; an underclass without hope and with no links and no commitments to society will swell in numbers; crime and violent activity will become the occupations of choice for growing numbers of young people; and political reaction will be swift, harsh, and unpredictable. America will increasingly divide along lines of those with good education, good jobs, and high income, and those with none of the above. Whether such a society can long endure is an open question. Such, however, is the plausible social and economic outcome of a “status quo” policy.


In the new context, radical reform would take the route, much in vogue these days, of privatization. Indeed, if one accepts the projection of a steadily dwindling state appropriation likely to be available for higher education, some degree of privatization seems to be in the cards, whether intended or not. In that case, all that remains would be to acknowledge that fact publicly and plan for its phase-in, as opposed to sowing confusion by moving in that direction without admitting it. But what would privatization mean for the structure and functioning of higher education? Would radical reform of this sort produce a plausible vision of the future?


One can imagine privatization being phased in over several years, requiring as many as 10 years to complete the transition. The public decision would have to be made and announced that direct state support of public colleges and universities will be reduced by a fixed amount each year. Tuition (the term could no longer be avoided) would increase each year by an amount sufficient to offset the decline in state appropriations. Students from wealthy families would pay the higher price, or shift to private colleges or enroll out-of-state. In principle, it might be possible to engineer this change in a way that sustains student access, at least at the level of current enrollments.


While the initial enrollment effects might be limited, privatization can be expected to have a dramatic impact on governance of the public segments of higher education. Hand-in-hand with declining state appropriations to institutions would go declining state control. The rationale for maintaining the segments of “public” higher education would end, and system offices would be closed, for there would be no system functions left. Each campus would seek its own future, based on its market power, the strength and attractiveness of its educational offerings, and the entrepreneurship of its leadership. Each campus would appoint its own Board of Trustees, while the system governing boards would be abolished.

Would a privatized system be likely to expand sufficiently to accommodate additional enrollments? I know of no way to form a convincing judgment on this issue. Enrollment levels would be governed by actions on both the demand and supply sides of the market. The demand side would be determined through cost/benefit calculations of each potential student, coupled with the nature and availability of financing sources. If the private rate of return to a college education continues to be high, as it has been in recent years, student motivation to attend will be strong. If adequate forms of grant and loan financing are available, students will be able to meet the cash requirements of the higher tuition rates. A critical issue will be the amount of state support required to meet the financial needs of students from low-income families. A judicious mix of grants and loans would have to be found in order to stretch state dollars as far as possible to ensure access.


The supply of places would be determined by the incentives for operating on the much-enlarged independent sector. It is reasonable to assume that the institutions collectively will strive to meet whatever demand is present-and I use that term in the strict economic sense of purchasing power backed up by dollars, not as a concept of social need. Colleges and universities that sought to expand would have to have access to capital funds, perhaps drawing on the bonding capacity of the state in their capacity as non-profit institutions. Enrollments in the accredited private colleges and universities could be expected to increase, as the financial playing field for them is leveled. Overall, a wide range of outcomes seems possible. One of the alleged benefits of privatization, however, is that whatever outcome the private educational market produces might be accepted as socially optimal. If political leaders conclude that too few students are enrolling, then increased grant and loan aid could increase access to the desired level. Existing federal grant and loan programs would mesh well with this privatized system, and state leaders could adjust the amount and type of student financial aid with those programs in mind.


Could radical reform work? There seem to be no overwhelming economic obstacles to such a system, but as was true of the status quo option, the uncertainty is political. A move to privatization would radically alter existing power relationships; there would be big winners and big losers politically and professionally. Among the losers would be state political leaders in both executive and legislative branches, as well as individuals currently in powerful governance positions: Regents, system presidents or chancellors and their staffs, and public members of the state coordinating board and its associated staff. In fact, those who would lose power are the very people who would have to be the supporters and advocates of the change that would undermine their positions. If for no other reason, this dilemma appears to doom privatization as a serious policy option. And even for those who would not lose power, the uncertainty and unpredictability about how such a radical change might work in practice may lessen its attraction. Barring a change in human nature, privatization is not a practical proposal for solving our problems.


We have judged the status quo option as socially and economically unacceptable, and the radical reform option as politically infeasible; what else is left? Nothing very dramatic or sweeping, I am afraid. The third option is made up of a myriad of small changes, none of which makes a huge difference by itself, but which collectively would go a long way toward meeting the enrollment demand. They do call for a suspension of “business as usual,” and thus must be ushered in as part of an explicit strategy. To announce that strategy, one dramatic act is required: the declaration of a state of emergency of indefinite duration.


What is the purpose of this public declaration? First, and most important, such a statement would provide official recognition of a reality that many understand, but that few have expressed. It would bear public witness to a situation that is nobody’s fault, but that cannot be handled by normal political means. It would be advanced in a spirit that seeks to draw all parties into a search for measures that would expand undergraduate access to higher education, thereby honoring the Master Plan’s commitment to educational opportunity. The state of emergency would be described as of indefinite duration because no one can be certain how long the economic crisis will endure. The statement leaves open the possibility that within the next 5 or 10 years the situation may improve such that the state of emergency can be lifted. The goal would be to avoid an adversarial environment by mobilizing energy and resources to secure the educational future of the state’s potentially most vulnerable citizens.


Properly presented, the declaration calls on civic virtue, rendering those who would resist it self-indulgent and short-sighted. Ideally, the leadership of the community college systems would join in the declaration, together with presidents of independent colleges and universities. The overriding objective would be to open as many spaces as possible for American undergraduates, while maintaining necessary strength and capacity for research, graduate and professional education. Most of these actions will have a cost for some participants in the system, but each involves a balancing of those costs against the greater social good.



Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *