Unfinished Business: Higher education state-level policy leadership still missing in California

August 26, 2014 | Written by: Nancy Shulock, Retiring Executive Director, Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP)

When IHELP was founded in 2001, we set a mission to enhance leadership and policy for California higher education by producing actionable research and information for policy makers, practitioners, and educators. We chose an emphasis on community colleges in recognition of their importance to the state’s economic well-being. As I approach my retirement, I am naturally reflecting on the state of California higher education today in view of that mission. 

What I see is a changed landscape dominated by scars from the Great Recession but energized by new commitments to student success, by some key new policies, and by lots of innovative efforts underway across college and university campuses. What I don’t see – hence the “unfinished business” – is the state-level policy leadership for which we, and many others, have been advocating since our earliest days.

Over these fourteen years, I have been privileged to be part of a national effort to improve educational attainment in response to fundamental demographic and economic changes that call for adjustments in the way that higher education is organized and students are supported. As a policy professional, I naturally gravitated to conversations about policy and to colleagues who focused on the role of public policy to support efforts to redesign higher education to better meet the needs of today’s students.

I learned so much from so many people, but a few warrant special mention here because, without them, I would not have had the opportunity to shape a role for IHELP in higher education policy: 

  • Don Gerth, Sacramento State’s president in 2001, saw a void in attention to California higher education policy, successfully sought start-up funds for IHELP, and allowed me to be its first director.
  • Pat Callan and Joni Finney, of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, along with their colleagues Dennis Jones of NCHEMS and David Longanecker of WICHE, helped me understand the vital role that state policy leadership plays. By representing the broad public perspective, capable state policy leadership can guide the efforts of a state’s colleges and universities toward meeting state goals. Absent such leadership, even a collection of outstanding higher education institutions, as we have in California, may leave vital state needs unaddressed.
  • Jane Wellman, a leading thinker on higher education policy who began her career in California, helped me see that California’s tendency to distribute decision-making authority widely (its “allergy to leadership” in her inimitable words) can preclude bold action, as parties successfully resist changes they perceive will threaten their interests.
  • Kay McClenney, in her tireless work on community college leadership and student engagement, validated for me, with insightful examples, why and how state policy matters in the lives of students.
  • Colleen Moore, my IHELP colleague since 2002, has collaborated with me every step of the way, fortifying our work with unassailable research and helping me understand the implications of research findings for policy.

Drawing on these lessons, my work at IHELP has focused on the connections between policy and practice. Our theory of change, so to speak, has been that research can illuminate opportunities to align policy with goals and priorities, identifying policy reforms that can help practitioners support student success. Research may reveal ways to improve student success but, with misaligned policies, practitioners may lack the resources, the support, or the incentives to do what needs to be done.

For example, research has shown that students who get an early start on a programmatic pathway are far more likely to succeed. Now, with the policy changes under the Student Success Act, such as requirements that new community college students receive orientation and advising and select a program of study by a certain time, there is every expectation that more students will earn college degrees and certificates. As another example, research showed that community college students found it very confusing to navigate a multitude of local agreements for transferring to universities. The new associate degrees for transfer, developed cooperatively by the California Community Colleges and the California State University, show promise to increase the numbers of students who will transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees.

Despite these, and many other, positive developments, the need for change greatly exceeds what present trends are likely to yield. IHELP and other organizations have documented the problems the state is having in educating growing numbers of low-income and under-served populations whose education is vital to the future of the state. But I believe that the opportunity to accelerate the pace of change is within reach. Among the most fundamental lessons I have drawn from my work at IHELP is that state-level policy leadership is the critical missing piece in California. Everything else is in place to propel the state forward to meet the challenges of 21st Century higher education. I believe that a state office charged to provide strategic leadership for California higher education, including the development of, and advocacy for, a public agenda with goals, strategies, and policies to serve the public interest, would be a game changer.

Calls for a policy leadership entity can seem abstract and beside the point. But the work of these bodies can have a big impact on students, families, and communities. With better state-level direction over the strategic use of scarce resources, for example, California students might find it easier to get the classes they need and to transfer their credits across institutions. They might have different options for the kinds of degrees they can earn and the kinds of institutions they can attend to earn those degrees. They may find it easier to afford college. Changes like these could come about if the needs of the state as a whole take priority over the needs of institutions.

Two leading scholars, William Doyle and William Zumeta, recently published an article describing the various ways that states responded to the Great Recession. They argue that Californians suffered more than necessary because there was no state governance entity to promote state priorities over sector-specific ones. As a result, each sector pursued its own solution to the fiscal crisis. We have seen the impact. Tuition increased in all three segments, the University of California began to move aggressively to enroll students from outside California, California State University campuses changed admission requirements, and the community colleges made disproportionate cuts to career technical education programs despite growing evidence of their value to students and communities. In each case the institutions made sensible decisions within the constraints of their own institutions and budgets. I don’t mean to imply that avoiding these actions would have been easy. But fundamental changes to the current order that might better serve students do not get considered when no one is charged to represent the broad public interest.

The last two research reports I worked on at IHELP deal directly with these issues. I am grateful for the opportunity to leave them for the record and I hope they will get some attention.

A New Vision for California Higher Education describes structural weaknesses inherent in the 1960 Master Plan for today’s circumstances and suggests that region-based, cross-sector planning under the guidance of a state plan and a state office of higher education would better address the distinct needs of California’s regions. The idea of region-based planning for California higher education is not new. Today, in fact, regional consortia are emerging across the state, bringing education, civic, and business leaders together to seek solutions to regional education and economic development needs. In many ways this is a positive development. But they are emerging in uneven patterns across the state in response to different funders with different prescriptions and different goals, competing for funds when they could be collaborating on a greater scale. I would love to see a coherent state approach to region-based planning whereby the state funds a defined set of regional consortia, provides them with equitable capacity to develop regional plans, and commits to reforming state policy to break down barriers to the cross-sector collaboration needed to serve today’s students and regions. This situation affirms my belief that policy matters – in this case to empower local actors and local action.

State Policy Leadership in Higher Education presents six short case studies of significant reforms implemented in other states and examines the state policy leadership that enabled the reforms. The case studies show that governors and legislators can be more effective leaders if assisted by an entity with the knowledge and capacity to engage stakeholders, collect and analyze data, devise policy proposals, help draft legislation, and monitor progress. One of the case studies, in particular, caught my attention. The Governor of Tennessee was reelected to a second term on the heels of a successful K-12 reform effort with a desire to extend his legacy of education reform to higher education. With the help of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, he enacted a major reform that led to adoption of a public agenda for higher education with state goals and new policies to increase the number of college graduates with the knowledge and skills needed in the state. Governor Brown has shown more interest in higher education than his recent predecessors and is widely expected to be reelected. With the added capacity of a higher education office, we could see a comprehensive vision for 21st Century California higher education take hold. Our students and communities would benefit greatly.

So much good has happened in these fourteen years. Yet I retire with a concern that the urgency of the higher education agenda isn’t yet fully grasped. I have worked with numbers more than with students but I know that it is students, in great numbers, whose futures are at stake each and every year that the work remains unfinished.  

*This blog was originally written and distributed by IHELP on August 20, 2014.

About the Author:

Nancy Shulock is the Retiring Executive Director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy.

To read her complete bio, click here.

Nancy Shulock headshot