Situations That Could Cause Major Higher Ed Policy Changes

Michael Kirst and Will Doyle

There are multiple possible events or changes that might move the problem of access to and success in higher education to the top of the policymaking agenda and result in non incremental change. These could include:

  • A state funding crisis leads to the denial of admission to large numbers of students, particularly students from middle and upper-income families that have traditionally gone to college. When this occurs, there is likely to be an outpouring of public anger.
  • A lack of funding from the state level may not lead to denial of admission but rather to widespread cancellation of classes at public universities and colleges, meaning that many students are unable to graduate. The average time to graduation at bachelor’s degree granting institutions could increase from six years to seven or eight leading to anger from a broad swathe of middle and upper income voters.
  • The generation gap in educational attainment widens. As the baby boomers retire, the lack of educational capital among the younger generation becomes alarmingly clear, and in many states rises to the level where it’s considered a crisis. Pressure comes from the business community to “do something” about the lack of qualified candidates for jobs.
  • The public could become aware of a drop in the quality of higher education at a time of rising tuition. K-12 reform efforts have been driven primarily by public concern about the quality of education. Several authors have documented what appears to be alarmingly low levels of student gains in higher education, yet this problem has garnered little attention from policymakers (Arum and Roksa, 2011; Pascarella et al, 2011)

The higher education community needs to come to greater clarity on the nature of the problem or problems that face us in terms of educational progress, completion and learning. What evidence is there that these problems can be solved with greater funding? With changes in curriculum? With changes in organizational structures? With changes in personnel? Although evidence is building, we know very little right now about both the nature of these problems and the kinds of interventions that would be most effective in increasing performance.