The Importance of Higher Education Issues in America

The Importance of Higher Education Issues in America

Survey respondents were asked to rate the importance of 31 higher education issues, using a five-point scale of ‘1’ equaling “not important” to ‘5’ equaling “very important.” Respondents were directed to consider the importance of these issues for the state overall, not simply to reflect their own viewpoints or their agencies’ agendas. Readers should keep in mind that our sample size is small, even though it represents nearly the entire universe of state higher education agencies. Mean scores should be treated as approximate, and small differences between items should not be over-interpreted as representing meaningful differences or trends.

The top issues in the states are:

–    teacher preparation and professional development

–    workforce preparation

–    effectiveness and accountability

–    K-16 systems/linkages between K-12 and postsecondary

–    instructional technology/distance learning.

Many other issues are rated high as well, revealing the large number of “front burner” issues facing higher education today.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is how issues are shifting in importance over time. When we last collected this information in 2014, the dominant issue was adequacy of overall state financial support, reflecting lean years in state appropriations. While this issue is still an important one, it ranks relatively lower than several other issues.

Several substantive issues have grown in importance over the years. Teacher preparation has made a dramatic comeback after declining in importance since 2014. Interest in workforce development and K-16 systems have both shown gradual increases over the past decade. Effectiveness and accountability, while a more important issue area than ten years ago, ranks relatively lower today than it did in 2014. Instructional technology/distance learning, a relatively new and quite important issue in 2000, still ranks very high but is no longer as singularly dominant on the policy agenda of states. Access and diversity, rated quite high in the early part of the last decade had dropped significantly the last time we surveyed. Now this issue area is rising again in importance, most likely a result of challenges to affirmative action being made around the country and consequent concerns. Finally, it is noteworthy that in 2020, concern about faculty salaries is slightly more important than concern about faculty workload and productivity, though neither issue is currently in the top half of the list. This contrasts with the policy environment in 2014 when concern about faculty workload and productivity was significantly higher than concern about faculty salaries.

We briefly explored differences between coordinating board states and governing board states, and found that by and large, the overall patterns are similar. Teacher preparation, workforce preparation, and effectiveness and accountability are rated among the top five important issues on both lists, and many issues are rated similarly by both groups. However, some small differences do show up in the data that might reflect real differences in the authority and concerns of coordinating boards and governing boards. On the governing board list, financial issues are generally rated somewhat higher, with tuition rates/overall student costs and adequacy of overall state financial support among their top five issues. On the coordinating board list, K-16 systems, instructional technology, and access and diversity round out their top five issues. We present these findings to stimulate thinking about these issues, cautioning readers not to over-interpret some rather slight differences in means.

In sum, we identified a large number of issues as very important to their states in 2020, and they are not singularly focused on any one area, such as financial concerns. When we explore their own sense of how things are changing, some connections among these issues and some common themes begin to emerge.

Teacher preparation and professional development. Part of the interest stems from teacher shortages. But much of the interest also comes from a growing K-16 focus and concerns about strengthening student achievement and the preparation of high school students for college and the workforce. Teacher quality is at the center of new statewide K-16 programs in which collaboration across sectors is essential.

At the same time, however, there are concerns about the potential loss of federal funds for teacher professional development as well as uncertainty about the implementation of new programs. Nevertheless, teacher preparation is increasingly being defined as a “front burner” issue for postsecondary education, a result of many and varying pressures coming into play.

Economic development and workforce issues. Many states are involved in strategic planning for economic development and in collaborations and partnerships with other state agencies and business for workforce development. Common attributes of their activities include:

–    more support for faculty research efforts and initiatives that support state economic growth

–    greater attention to technology transfer, global interconnectedness, and competition

–    more focus on the role of community colleges and on their need to respond quickly and effectively to state job needs

–    more interest in seeking support from the private sector

–    more interest in career-linked liberal arts and on meeting vocational demands

–    more attention being paid to the needs of non-traditional working adults.

Effectiveness and accountability. Effectiveness and accountability have been top priority issues throughout the last decade and continue to play an important role. Whether a result of accountability bills passed by the state legislature or proactive moves taken by some agencies, there is a high level of interest in both the academic and financial performance of institutions. Agencies are continuing to improve their database capabilities, develop new performance measures, produce annual report cards, conduct new research studies, and adopt performance-based funding strategies. Concerns about efficiency, administrative savings and cost reduction, and institutional effectiveness abound.

In response to accountability concerns, some agencies are playing a larger role as information agents for higher education, responding to many more information and data inquiries. These requests come from legislators, governors, institutions, and the public.

Some states are clearly feeling the burden, having difficulty keeping up with the demand for accountability reporting and policy studies.

Based on more than a decade of evidence, we may conclude that effectiveness and accountability will not go away as important priorities. How the agencies respond may, however, make a considerable difference in their roles in the state, and ultimately, in the quality of their educational institutions.

K-16 systems/linkages with K-12. Many commented on the growing importance of linkages between K-12 education and postsecondary education. In some cases, members are involved in new partnerships and collaborations with the K-12 sector; in other cases, they speak of K-16, P-16, or even K-20 systems.

State legislation has provided the impetus to many, but not all, of these efforts. Federal legislation has also played a role. By providing resources to states to enhance access and outreach activities, this legislation will support postsecondary education’s effort to develop greater linkages with the K-12 system.

Instructional technology/distance learning. Offering a whole new approach to teaching and learning, technology issues emerged with a strength and constancy that is not likely to diminish. Many described their growing roles related to:

–    use of technology in the teaching/learning process

–    strengthening the technology infrastructure

–    growth in electronic courses and programs

–    technology planning

–    developing partners and collaborative efforts.

Several members mentioned that the increased interest in technology has resulted from changing demands on higher education: demands imposed by growing enrollments, demands for new courses and programs, and demands from new constituents (K-12 students and adult workers). However, it may be too much to expect that technology can solve all of higher education’s challenges.

Access and diversity. Interest in access and diversity may have waned somewhat in recent years, but our 2020 survey indicates that this issue area is again rated high. To some degree, challenges to affirmative action – by voter referenda and court rulings – that have occurred over the past decade have raised this issue to a new level of importance.

Yet, in this context, responses may have to be more complex and creative. Rather than employing race-based policies, states are acting on this priority through growing interest in the preparation of high school students and early outreach activities.

Generating financial support for higher education. Thanks to a strong national economy and higher state appropriations for higher education, this reflects, no doubt, a less financially stressful time for higher education leaders. However, we noted that concerns about resources and funding are increasingly important topics in some states. We noted the following developments:

–    greater reliance on tuition revenues

–    greater emphasis on private fundraising and the generation of alternative funding sources

–    creation of revised funding plans

–    renewed interest in facilities maintenance and capital construction funding.

Student financial aid. Though not at the top of the list, student financial aid policies have remained an area of importance for many state agencies over the past decade. In particular, we follow changes in federal student aid policy with great interest, and several respondents commented on the impacts of both new federal tax credit policies as well as changes in traditional programs. Their assessments vary, however, and some respondents are more optimistic than others.

A few states indicated that there has been substantial increased state appropriation support for student financial aid in recent years, and a few have been given new responsibilities for financial aid administration. Other states, however, were less optimistic, and a small number noted that their state programs are not adequately funded.

States are struggling to develop new policies and programs and to address demands from constituents in a more flexible way. For example, they are being challenged to pay more attention to funding continuing education/professional development programs to support lifelong learning and for scholarship/waiver eligibility for high school students taking college courses, including charter school and home schooled students.

State higher education agencies and boards are playing an increasingly important policy leadership role in their states. Though not a new observation, this theme emerging from the current study further confirms what others have described as the movement of coordinating and governing boards away from regulatory roles toward larger state policy roles.

Agency operations. Along with these role changes, new board/staff relations are apparent, and several teachers reported new ways of doing business in their states. These include:

–    changes in the structure of board meetings with more focus on large policy issues and less on routine administrative matters

–    reduction of the number of items on the board agenda to permit more discussion of policy issues

–    shift from a strong subcommittee structure to a “committee of the whole”

–    reorganization of staff to support new committees; greater effort by staff to provide information to regents.

In terms of institutional relations, the survey also revealed a mixed picture. A few respondents described a tendency toward greater decentralization of decisions and a shift of responsibility to the campuses, for example, in the area of program review and approval. Others talked about a greater “system” perspective than ever before, with more emphasis on inter-institutional planning and service delivery.

Collaboration and external relations. In earlier sections of this report, we described how specific policy areas are increasingly addressed through collaborative work:

–    working with the K-12 sector on teacher preparation and professional development, student academic achievement and remediation, student outreach, and other issues

–    working with businesses and other state agencies on workforce and economic development

–    using technology tools and developing partnerships, including private sector partnerships, for new kinds of program delivery

–    developing more collaborations in connection with federal grant opportunities and projects.

One strong theme to emerge from this study is the growing importance of external relations on the whole, marked by this increased collaboration with external entities as well as:

–    more responsiveness to state needs overall

–    viewing the governor and legislature as primary customers (with a greater need to inform and to continually reeducate legislators and their staffs about higher education issues due to legislative term limits)

–    more emphasis on improving public awareness and perceptions of higher education and on encouraging universities to send out more positive messages

–    a greater market research orientation.

Based on the responses of the chief executive officers of statewide higher education coordinating and governing boards, this study described some of the ways in which the priority issues, roles, and relationships of state higher education agencies and boards have shifted in recent years. In particular, we noted that state higher education agencies and boards are playing an increasingly important policy leadership role in their states. They are working simultaneously on many issues, and those of top importance are: (1) teacher preparation and professional development, (2) workforce preparation, (3) effectiveness and accountability, (4) system linkages between K-12 and postsecondary education, and (5) instructional technology/distance learning. To address the priority issues and other cross-cutting policy areas, we increasingly collaborate with K-12 education, other state government agencies, institutions, and the private sector. They are more market-focused than ever before and more responsive to the needs of their states. They spend more time and energy on external relations, in particular, in responding to state legislature and governor needs for information and answers. The federal government is seen both as a source of funding and catalyst for change in some areas, as well as a drain on resources with ever-growing accountability reporting requirements. As higher education is called upon to meet changing demands and to fulfill expanding purposes, state agencies and boards, while facing new challenges, have new opportunities to make a difference.


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.



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