Any discussion about the role and mission of higher education for the state and nation, has to begin with restoration of public support for higher education as a public good. Constitutionally, public education is a state responsibility. Historically we have not focused on higher education as part of that mandate. It has been treated as an optional add-on for “some people.” It is no longer an option. In the 1990s President Clinton argued that a two-year college degree was the new minimum. President Obama has called for “free” community college. (We can debate the free term elsewhere.) The noted economists Goldwin and Katz (2008) have shown that, in large part, the reason the 20th century was the “American Century” was due to policies that increased education attainment. Early in that century the United States, unlike many countries, made the decision to make high school free and mandatory. At the time many argued high school was not for everybody; a familiar refrain today as we debate college access. The U.S. then followed that policy decision with others (e.g., the GI Bill) that, according to Goldwin and Katz analysis, made education the primary driver of America’s success in the 20th century.
As the U.S.’s primacy in education weakens in the 21st century, states and the U.S. must find the will to recommit to investing in higher education to again dramatically raise education attainment to preserve the country’s status as an influential player in a global economy.
It is, in fact, well past time states restored support for higher education to reverse the declines in college affordability for middle and low income students. Most states have not yet even returned to pre-recession levels of support (Mortenson, 2012). In Illinois, over the last five years the state became less affordable, faster, for low and middle income students than in almost any other state (Illinois Board of Higher Education, 2014). A recent comprehensive report analyzing the causes for increased college costs nationally found that almost 80 percent of recent tuition increases in public higher education can be attributed to declines in state support (Hiltonsmith, 2015).
Most states have set audacious goals for raising college attainment for their citizens (e.g., 55%, 60%, 80%). Current college attainment levels are hovering around 40 percent as they have for years. These aggressive goals are necessary since two-thirds of all the new and replacement jobs going forward will require college credentials (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; 2014). However, few have bothered to cost out what it will take to achieve these goals, much less made commitments to fund those costs. Setting a goal, such as Illinois has, that 60% of its residents should have postsecondary education, with a credential or degree is a first step.
Looking at the capacity of our higher education institutions and the regional access to educational opportunities that are necessary for jobs that are available is another important step. Estimating how much financial assistance to students and financial support for educational services, staff, faculty and facilities is also an important step. Illinois must make the commitment to implement these two next essential steps.
In Illinois we are working to define the investment that will be required over the next decade or more to reach the state goal of having 60% of its workforce with a quality college credential. That “cost model” must include increased state investment, improved institutional productivity, and an approach to student financial support that emphasizes degree completion and “shared responsibility” allowing for greater student contributions through smarter work study policies, earn and learn models, etc. (Davies, 2014).
Each state must cost out the strategies needed to obtain their goals and commit to partnerships with higher education and its stakeholders to fund those strategies. While the focus of this effort should be on public higher education, for most states the plan must include support for students attending both public and private colleges.
The word partnership is a key to the success of this work. Success will require investment from outside the education sector. Employers (who are prime beneficiaries of this work), non-profit, and philanthropic partners among others must join in multi-sector collaborations with education if we are to achieve the level of impact required. If we narrowly focus on only higher education and higher education resources we will fail. Exciting new work is developing that brings multi-sector partnerships to the table to support collaboration across sectors for collective impact on education outcomes (Kania and Cramer, 2011) and sustainable partnerships with employers that bring their considerable resources to the table in efforts to expand college ROI for more students (FSG, 2015).
At its core, however, this demands a compact that requires higher education to embrace business and academic delivery models that maximize efficiency and effectiveness in return for a commitment by states to make greater investment. This “both/and” strategy (Applegate, 2015) is necessary. Higher education cannot “efficient” its way to meet these goals as much as some political leaders would hope it could. Nor is there enough new money anywhere to fund achieving these goals using a “business as usual” model for higher education as much as some in higher education would like to avoid change.
There are those with considerable financial expertise that are rightly gloomy about the prospects of any upturn in state economies that would allow for restoring any part of the public investment in higher education. However, without increased investment it is hard to imagine anything but growing gaps in college opportunity between the haves and have nots. That negative spiral will ensure a gloomy future. We must restore public confidence and support for higher education as a public good worthy of public investment. This will require a compact characterized by transparency, mutual accountability and trust between public policy makers, higher education, and its stakeholders. We are all in this together. If higher education becomes once again an elitist enterprise our economy and our civic infrastructure will crumble.
Resources for a Deeper Dive
Applegate, J.L. (2015). The path to progress requires a “both/and” strategy. Retrieved from http://www.ibheillinois.blogspot.com.
Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Georgetown University: Center on Education and the Workforce: Georgetown University. Retrieved from http://www.cew.georgetown.edu.
Carnevale, A., Smith, N. & Strohl, J. (2014). Hard times: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Georgetown University: Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf.
Davies, L. (2014). State “shared responsibility “policies for improved outcomes: Lessons learned. HCM Strategists. Retrieved from http://www.hcmstrategists.com.
FSG (2015). Shared value initiative. Retrieved from http://www.fsg.org/share-value-initiative.
Goldin, C. & Katz, L. (2008). The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Hiltonsmith, R. (2015). Pulling up the higher education ladder: Myth and reality in the crisis of college affordability. New York: Demos Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.demos.org/publication/pulling-higher-ed-ladder-myth-and-reality-crisis-college-affordability.
Illinois Board of Higher Education (2014). The public agenda 5 years later. Retrieved from http://www.ibhe.state.il.us/Board/agendas/2014/April/NCHEMSReport_KeyFindings.pdf.
Kania, J. & Cramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter). Retrieved from http://www.ssir.org/article/entry/collective_impact.
Mortenson, T. (2012a). State funding: A race to the bottom. American Council on Education, Budget and Appropriations (Winter). Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/state-funding-a-race-to-the-bottom.aspx.