A very smart friend of mine recently said, “The path to education hell is paved with false dichotomies.” I could not agree more. “Liberal arts education versus a college to careers approach”, “career and technical education versus college track curricula”, “increased college completion versus quality degrees,” all represent false dichotomies that divert us from creating student-centered pathways providing high quality learning that prepares all students for life and work.
As states have grappled with difficult budgets another false dichotomy often derails productive discussion about the path forward to enable higher education to best serve the public good. Some would talk about nothing but the need for increased state investment in higher education, while others focus only on the need to increase higher education productivity so that it can better serve more students with less resources. External stakeholders of all sorts tend to focus on the latter while the higher education community embraces the former. Even a cursory look at the current landscape and the audacious goals that need to be met if our people, states, and country are to succeed clearly show that we need both increased public investment and increased institutional productivity to succeed. Higher education institutions cannot “efficient” their way to success even with the best innovations. Nor is there enough new money anywhere to fund success if business as usual in higher education continues to be embraced. Here I will focus on what states (including Illinois) can do to smartly support progress on the path to an educated citizenry. In my next blog, I will focus on institutional responsibilities to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
What must state governments do? First, they must make difficult policy decisions that allow for re-investment in higher education as an economic development strategy to increase revenue and reduce public assistance, health care, and criminal justice costs. To date, states have been doing just the opposite: slashing public higher education budgets and in essence eating their seed corn. (See the recent report by the Center for American Progress: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/higher-education/report/2014/10/27/99731/a-great-recession-a-great-retreat/.) In Illinois, public higher education funding for operations and capital improvements has declined by more than one-third over the last decade ($1 billion when adjusted for inflation). Early in this century, Illinois paid seven of every ten dollars of the cost to educate a student at its public universities. Today the state covers only four of every ten dollars in costs. IBHE analyses suggest that had Illinois INVESTED in higher education over the last 10-15 years and achieved the goal we have set for 2025 by 2014 (60% of its workforce with a college degree), the state would be benefitting from additional annual tax revenues ranging from more than $600 million most conservatively to, in a more likely scenario, more than $900 million in annual revenue.
However, reinvestment does not and should not mean pouring dollars back into the same old buckets from more than a decade ago. Reinvestment should support what is needed from a 21st century higher education system. The same is true for efforts to change other higher education policies. It is not all about the money. So again, what are some specific investment/policy strategies states should consider?
1. Support improved performance. Create a compact with higher education tying support to performance. If higher education improves performance (e.g., producing more degrees leading to careers, closing success gaps for underrepresented students, lowering costs per degree) the state commits to increase support, reinvesting the returns on a more educated workforce into the system. The reverse, of course, also applies. Such a compact should provide consistent and predictable supports: a key to increased productivity. Wildly fluctuating funding patterns hinder strategic planning and drive up costs.
2. Target student financial support correctly. Ensure that every dollar of financial aid (state and institutional) is need-based. Too many states and institutions are allocating too much money to students who can attend college without aid based on a skewed conception of “merit.” Second, include all forms of financial supports (e.g., SNAP, WIA, and TANF) in an aligned program that includes adult learners. Also, structure aid to incentivize student college success. See: http://www.luminafoundation.org/files/publications/ideas_summit/Moving_the_Needle.pdf; http://www.edexcelencia.org/research/sa_impact_aid.
3. Provide public colleges and universities regulatory relief. If colleges are to be more nimble and productive, holding down costs and adapting to changing student needs, they must have the flexibility to innovate. Some states have conducted “policy audits” to identify and eliminate state and institutional policies that hinder innovation and add costs that students ultimately must bear. In Illinois, for example, we are working with our partners to ensure state procurement policies do not threaten institutions’ ability to engage in multi-state purchasing agreements that save millions of dollars. Transparency and accountability are values we all share, but often, over the years, procurement, personnel, and other policies accumulate like stalagmites and many, once viewed through the productivity lens, are clear candidates for removal.
4. Eliminate unfunded mandates. Often with the best of intentions, states and the federal government impose requirements on colleges that appear reasonable in isolation. Like regulations though they accumulate over time and greatly add to college’s cost structure. Due to the state disinvestment in higher education these costs typically fall on students. Illinois is no exception. In 2010, a Blue Ribbon Committee on higher education mandates in Illinois presented its findings to the legislature finding over 100 such mandates costing tens of millions of dollars (http://www.ibhe.state.il.us/Fiscal%20Affairs/PDF/2010_HR918.pdf). Unfortunately, in 2015 little has changed. In this budget climate it would seem appropriate to update and act on the findings of that report.
5. Tear down silos. One of the clearest example of silos hampering efficiency and effectiveness is the data disconnects that prevent longitudinal analyses of P-12, higher education, and workforce/economic development data. In Illinois we are working to create a longitudinal data system that connects this data at the state and regional levels. Without integrated data the system is far less able to identify what is working, what is not, and focus resources on high impact practices. States also suffer from siloed funding streams in areas like human services, workforce training, education, and public assistance. If aligned these programs could better enable low income families to easily access all the resources available to them to support attaining the education they need to improve their economic condition. As currently structured these programs require someone with a college degree to find a way to fund college. Integrative models that Illinois can use are available (http://www.singlestopusa.org/; http://www.aacc.nche.edu/newsevents/pressreleases/Pages/pr02082012.aspx). Creating incentives for public/private partnerships is another way to remove silos. One effective example of this type of integration was Michigan’s “No Worker Left Behind Program” (http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/08/survey_says_old_michigan_jobs.html). Only through strong state leadership can these silos be removed and programs be remodeled to better serve adult and traditional students who require a college credential to live a decent life and support a 21st century economy in Illinois.
Illinois’ progress requires both state support and increases in institutional productivity. (See http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/social_sector/boosting_productivity_in_us_higher_education.) More on institutional productivity strategies will be provided in my next blog. We will also be discussing these strategies at our February 3, 2015 IBHE Board meeting with a focus on improving college affordability in Illinois. For now though, as Illinois enters a very difficult 2016 budget discussion with a new governor and a legislature that convenes this month, here is hoping that we can work together to develop smart funding and streamlined policy solutions that allow Illinois’ higher education system to provide the ROI Illinois requires to succeed as a state.