State Policymakers Focus on Priorities in Higher Education
By Pam Goins, Director, CSG Center for Innovation and Transformation in Education
Higher education budgets continue to be strained as they have been for decades from cuts in state supports. At the same time, less than 60 percent of first-time, full-time students beginning at a four-year institution earn their bachelor’s degree within six years.
“The key challenge at the 100,000 foot level, at the institutional level, the state level, the national level is this simply: How do we educate more students who demonstrate greater learning outcomes with high academic quality at lower costs while not degrading the experience in what they learn and can do?” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “That’s the target.”
While the challenge may be simple to phrase, it’s not so simple to resolve. But that doesn’t mean states aren’t trying. Several state policymakers discussed their efforts during a Council of State Governments Education Policy Academy in June.
Arkansas, for instance, developed the “Access to Success” program, focused on college graduation leading to economic development based on recommendations from the Arkansas Task Force on Higher Education Remediation, Retention and Graduation Rates.
Former Arkansas Rep. Johnnie Roebuck in 2011 sponsored House Bill 1772, which enhanced the opportunity for successful degree completion. Among other things, the bill strengthened full course transferability between all state-supported institutions of higher education, clarified which courses are prerequisite courses and established a statewide common course numbering system for postsecondary courses.
Driving their activities is the knowledge that Arkansas has experienced a more positive pattern of economic growth than the nation as a whole but lags significantly behind most Southern states and the nation in degree-holders.
In addition to making course transfer and articulation easier, states are also looking at the way they finance higher education.
Tennessee in 2010 moved away from funding higher education based on enrollment to outcomes.
“There is no such thing as base funding in Tennessee anymore,” said Crystal Collins, director of fiscal policy for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “All money is up for grabs every year.”
Every institution in the state must meet certain benchmarks to get funding under the Complete College Tennessee Act; no institution gets any minimum level of funding, said Collins.
Four-year institutions are awarded funding based on factors such as student progression through various credit hour benchmarks; the number of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees awarded; research and grant funding; and overall graduation rates. Community colleges must hit triggers such as dual enrollment, associate degrees awarded, credentials awarded, job placements, remedial and developmental success, and workforce training.
“Whatever money we get from the legislature, we don’t go back and ask for more,” she said. “You earn your percentage by how you did on your model.”
States also are looking at nontraditional students enrolled in higher education.
Jacquie Furtado, director of retention and graduation at Ashford University, a university based in Iowa, said adult learners have pressing commitments outside the classroom, such as family and work. They need flexibility in time and location with access to student services. That flexibility, Furtado said, likely will come through more than one institution.
Furtado recommended states remove barriers for adult learners and suggested that institutions rethink course delivery systems, scheduling, resources and student services. She urged the policymakers to consider a review of:
Life and Career Planning—Address adult learners life and career goals before or at the onset of enrollment to assess and align institutions’ capacities to help students reach their goals;
Assessment of Learning Outcomes—Define and assess the knowledge, skills and competencies already acquired by adult learners—both from the curriculum and from life and work experience—giving credit where credit is due;
Financing—Promote choice using an array of payment options for adult learners in order to expand financial flexibility;
Student Support Systems—Assist adult learners using comprehensive academic and student support systems to enhance students’ capacities to become self-directed, lifelong learners;
Teaching/Learning Process—Encourage faculty to use multiple methods of instruction— including experiential and problem-based methods—for adult learners to connect curricular concepts to useful knowledge and skills;
Technology—Use technology to provide relevant and timely information and to enhance the learning experience; and
Strategic Partnerships—Engage in strategic relationships, partnerships and collaborations with employers and other organizations to develop and improve educational and employment opportunities for adult learners.