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Educators Say School-State Relations In Flux

Educators Say School-State Relations In Flux

By Garry Boulard

American higher education is burdened with challenges — everything from reduced state appropriations to increased competition to dramatic surges in student enrollment.
But strength is often borne of adversity. Today many two- and four-year schools have taken new approaches to funding, and in the process have developed new and more enriching relationships with their state backers, according to an essay published by the American Council on Education (ACE) that explores the conceptual changes taking place in higher education today.
“The relationship between the schools and the states has actually been changing for some time,” said Dr. Peter Eckel, associate director for institutional initiatives at ACE. “There have been a lot of twists and turns in the relationship, and, of course, everything varies from state to state, but I think across the country we are seeing new approaches to old problems in ways that could only be described as innovative.”
According to the ACE publication, “Rewriting the Rules of the Game: State Funding, Accountability, and Autonomy in Public Higher Education,” more and more institutions of higher learning are vying for autonomy — or at least to a larger extent than they have in the past, in an effort to rid themselves of burdensome state interventions and turbulent budget cycles.
And in winning that autonomy, the essay says, such institutions and their leaders often settle for less funding or more accountability.
But it’s unclear what this shift means for the future. 
“This approach may create more problems than it alleviates for higher education as a whole,” according to the essay. “And beyond a small group of institutions (typically research universities, highly competitive and selective institutions, or those with diversified revenue streams), as one president pointed out, ‘This is not much of a bargain.’ The majority gain little from such agreements.”
Such changes are symbolic of a larger quest on the part of the nation’s schools to find new and different solutions to their problems, according to Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, who participated in the roundtable discussion behind the ACE essay. “It is in many ways a matter of simply trying to change perceptions and the way we have traditionally looked at things. For example, many of us have come to the point of view that higher education, including community colleges, is more of an individual benefit than a social benefit, and there is a good deal of data to reinforce that point of view.”
But what many educators and state lawmakers miss, Boggs said, is the larger social value attached to higher education.
“Society is better off in general when any one person gets more education, and this is very visibly true with community colleges, because it means someone is going to now be able to get a higher-paying job and contribute to the local economy, and the benefits to society multiply from that point on,” Boggs said.
Unfortunately, he added, “We have not made that case strongly enough, so that it has been easier for a state policy-maker to say that if higher education is just a great individual benefit, then that person should have to pay more of the costs, which is exactly what has happened in many states.”
The ACE essay is the second of a series stemming from roundtable discussions on the fluctuating relationship between states and their institutions of higher learning.
Eckel, who also is the publication’s author, was quick to note that many state lawmakers across the country are working with educators to find answers and solutions — a task that’s never easy: “These are challenges that really tax the imagination of both educators as well as elected officials,” Eckel said.
And to make matters even more challenging, “The things that one state may try, things that may very well be quite innovative, do not always work well in another state,” Eckel said.
Some of the new state approaches cropping up across the country include deregulation, decentralization, tuition vouchers, performance-contingent funding, public-corporation status and charter colleges, according to the essay.
“Often, the names vary among states, but the principles behind them are similar,” the essay notes, adding that usually approaches include “some combination of procedural and operational autonomy, tuition flexibility, accountability (often in the form of performance contracts) and, sometimes, level funding (plus inflation).”
The upshot, Eckel said, is that most of the problems currently confronting higher education aren’t going to be completely solved anytime soon.
“But at least we are seeing, if not entirely new approaches to these problems, then at least a very vigorous discussion of those new approaches,” Eckel said. “And that is very much a step in the right direction.” 

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