[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Public Policy Drivers of Higher Education

Royce C. Engstrom
Chemistry & President


—Royce Engstrom
Royce Engstrom

As we plan for the next decade of higher education in Montana, we must do so in the context of public policy trends and expectations. Determining with clarity what those expectations are is challenging, but many sources provide guidance. For example, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) publishes annually, Policy Matters: Top 10 Higher Education Policy Issues./1/ Similarly, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) maintains an ongoing dialogue of public policy issues on its web site./2/ An excellent overview of ten key issues in higher education as seen through the lens of technology was recently published./3/ Monographs abound presenting perspective on specific challenges to higher education. Helpful and interesting examples include treatments on designing education to meet the needs of a democracy,/4/ managing state universities in today's climate of accountability,/5/ and financial models of higher education worldwide./6/

In this article, I present four key issues that, in my opinion, rise to the top in terms of importance and urgency. They are issues on the landscape both nationally and in Montana. They shape the agenda of the Montana Board of Regents, the strategic planning of public institutions within the state of Montana, and the day-to-day decision-making of our universities and colleges. The first issue addresses the straightforward (in terms of understanding, but not in solving) quantitative need for more college-educated citizens in the United States and in Montana. Second is the question of what constitutes an effective and high-quality undergraduate education in today's world. Third is the topic of knowledge generation through research and creative scholarship. Fourth is the question of who pays for higher education and at what level. The summary of the article addresses the importance of effective strategic planning and assessment in meeting public policy expectations.

An educated citizenry—the quantitative challenge

The United States no longer leads the world in the percentage of its population with a college education. Difficulties exist in comparing levels of educational attainment among countries because of ambiguity as to what constitutes college level work vs. high school work, but the American Council on Education recently published a detailed treatment of the data and the related uncertainties./7/ Table 2 in that publication summarizes the percentage of the population in the United States with some level of tertiary education (defined as associate's, bachelor's, graduate, or professional level) has remained nearly constant for the past four decades. Some 36% of Americans in the age range of 55-64 and 39% of 25-34 year olds possess some tertiary education. In contrast, the average educational attainment in the OECD countries (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) has increased from 18% for ages 55-64 to 31% for ages 25-34./8/ Currently the United States ranks 12th among the OECD countries, whereas only two decades ago the United States ranked 1st. Clearly, many countries now see college education as a key step to improvement and have, through various means, encouraged their citizens to participate in increasing numbers. Hungary, Greece, South Korea, and the Czech Republic are OECD countries with the fastest growing educational attainment rates. Montana's own educational attainment rate is close to the United States' average.

"Student pipeline" data is especially informative. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems produced a data set showing the transition and completion rates of students from the 9th grade through college./9/ In the United States, for every 100 students who enter the 9th grade, 69.5 will graduate from high school, 44 will enter college, and 25 will graduate from college within 150% of the time nominally described for the program they enter (i.e., six years for a typical baccalaureate program). In Montana, for every 100 9th graders, 79 will graduate from high school, (significantly higher than the national average), 41 will enter college (somewhat lower than the national average), and only 16 will graduate within the 150% time window (significantly less than the national average.) That completion rate puts Montana in the lowest quartile of states with respect to the student pipeline. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Minnesota lead the nation; Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas trail.

Why do these statistics matter from a public policy perspective? First, they matter in terms of our young people making a viable living. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University recently reported on education requirements for jobs by the year 2018./10/ The Center projects that nationally only 38% of available jobs will be accessible to people with a high school degree or less. The remaining 62% will require some college. For Montana, the Center projects that 62-68% of the available jobs in 2018 will require a college education. Thus, a serious disconnect exists nationally and in Montana between the percentage of our citizens who currently participate in higher education and the percentage of the jobs that will be available to them. To be sure, a college education is not just about getting a job, far from it. However, a rewarding career is of key importance to most of our citizens.

Second, these statistics matter because the societal opportunities and challenges before us today call for expertise beyond that available in high school. The United States has built its strength as a world leader on innovation, problem-solving, and envisioning the future. To maintain that leadership, we must increase the percentage of our citizens who are prepared for such challenges. Furthermore, Montana must participate in that innovation both because of the distinctive contributions its citizens can make and because a strong country depends upon strong states.

Fortunately, higher education leaders know the above situation well. Indeed, President Obama has recognized the problem and set a goal of restoring the nation's leadership in educational attainment by the year 2020. The Montana Board of Regents adopted a strategic plan with Access and Affordability as Goal 1./11/ In that context, access means not just entering, but completing college. Given that college six-year graduation rates average around 45% for public institutions, an important potential pool of new college graduates is that group of students who begin college, but do not graduate. In other words, retention of students through to graduation holds the most promise for increasing the number of college educated people.

Many factors contribute to non-retention,/12/ including academic preparation, financial strain, and personal adjustment to the college environment. The University of Montana-Missoula has pursued the topic of academic preparedness by changing its admission policy, effective Fall 2014, to provide "automatic" admission to those students who have completed a full college preparatory curriculum in high school, including four years of mathematics, three years of science, four years of English, three years of social sciences, and two years of a second language. Montana University System admissions standards for grade-point average and ACT score must also be met. Other students will still be admitted, but with supplemental information demonstrating college readiness. The College of Technology will remain open admission. The Montana Digital Academy now makes a full college preparatory curriculum accessible to any student in the state by offering the above courses, and many others, in electronic format.

The nature of today's education

The second key issue is the question of what we teach our students. Are we preparing them for today's expectations of educated citizens? The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) thinks deeply and publishes consistently on this topic. In College Learning for the New Global Century,/13/ AACU states:

Student success in college cannot be documented—as it usually is—only in terms of enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment. These widely used metrics, while important, miss entirely the question of whether students who have placed their hopes for the future in higher education are actually achieving the kind of learning they need for a complex and volatile world.

AACU posits that the learning outcomes for students in the 21st century are not the same outcomes of the past, that the characteristics of the world today require a refocusing of educational goals in order to equip students to be productive contributors to society. Regardless of chosen path of study, AACU recommends four "Essential Learning Outcomes:"

In addition, I believe we need to remind ourselves explicitly of a fifth essential outcome, one that we have actually done rather effectively in higher education, and that is in-depth expertise in one or more subject areas (i.e., the major field of study). Without an in-depth understanding of a particular content area, a student will have difficulty achieving the four outcomes above, and a graduate will struggle to provide meaningful input to interdisciplinary challenges and opportunities.

Through General Education, students in public higher education now have ample opportunity to fulfill the first two outcomes above. General Education typically requires coursework in a framework designed to achieve knowledge of culture and the natural world. Additionally, General Education strives to achieve a certain level of competency in the intellectual and practical skills of quantitative literacy, written and oral communications, and increasingly, information literacy. Mechanisms are often available for accomplishing outcome 3, but they are often accessed by a relatively small percentage of students. Outcome 4 is one in which we rarely achieve across the borders of specialized studies.

AACU further recommends that in order to achieve all of the above learning outcomes, institutions should engage in "high-impact practices."/14/ These practices include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, global learning, including study abroad, service learning, internships, and capstone experiences. We recognize these practices as already available to students on most campuses, but usually on a scale involving a relatively small fraction of students. In general, the larger the campus, the more limited are the offerings of high-impact practices.

The effectiveness of high-impact practices is positive./15/ The public policy challenge is to find a way of implementing them on a scale that is accessible to most students. Two considerable challenges impede implementation on a broad scale. First, high-impact practices tend to be time-intensive from a faculty perspective. (As someone who has participated actively in the undergraduate research movement in this country, I can attest to both the great reward and the time intensity of working closely with undergraduates in a research environment.) Second, they are resource intensive. Study abroad, for example, has typically been available only to those students who have the financial means to participate.

Innovation for economic, cultural, and social development

Higher education has, as an integral part of its mission, not just the dissemination of knowledge but the discovery of knowledge, the development of creative works, and the application of both to the betterment of society. The emphasis of the research mission relative to the teaching mission depends on the nature of the institution, its degree offerings, its chartered mission, and how it decides to allocate resources. In the United States, the responsibility for "research and development" resides in several sectors, with industry conducting the majority of activity and higher education carrying out only 17%./16/ However, when it comes to "basic research," an imprecisely defined term, at best, universities are the mainstay in this country. Research and creative scholarship present two major public policy issues. The first is the question of how we communicate to the public the impact of research and creative scholarship. The second concerns resource distribution and the question of optimizing our investment in research.

Higher education leaders describe the importance of research as several-fold. First, there are educational benefits. We believe that students benefit from being taught "in the classroom" by faculty members who have and who continue to engage in scholarship. Students also benefit through direct involvement in research, one of the "high impact" practices referred to above. Students benefit from having access to facilities, equipment, library materials, and visiting scholars that are part of a research environment. Beyond education, there are benefits that relate to quality of life, including health care, cultural events derived from original creative works, or research directed at improved learning of young people. There are benefits that stem from the application of research to immediate problems and opportunities, including the improvement of business practices or the management of natural resources. Direct economic benefits come to a community from the "research industry" itself. In Montana, academic research currently shows expenditures of around $200 million,/17/ mostly derived from sources outside of the state with the federal government the largest single source. Those dollars provide for approximately 2,000 jobs and an estimated 70% of the research expenditures goes to salaries and benefits. There are economic benefits that result from business spin-off companies, patents and licensing, and the sales of research derived products and services. Finally, and perhaps fundamentally most important, is the benefit to the curious human intellect. We have an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and provided that more basic needs are tended to, we will go to great lengths to discover new knowledge.

In this age of assessment, we have difficulty arriving at measures that inform us of the true impact of research and creative scholarship. The public reasonably demands some understanding of outcomes for the investments made in research. Certain measures of productivity are easy to express. For example, every research institution watches closely the dollars of its externally funded research. Indeed, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching bases its institutional classification in no small measure on research expenditures./18/ Numbers of publications and citations, along with the prestige of publication venues, are other measures used to describe research productivity. Those metrics are imperfect expressions of the impact of research, and rarely speak to research and scholarship beyond that conducted through external sponsorship. While within the academy we may have a strong sense of the importance of historical scholarship, or music composition, or the translation of a work from another language, it remains an enormous challenge to communicate the impact of such creative scholarship in a manner that has meaning in a public-policy sense. We must address that shortcoming.

Assuming we can express the impact of our research and creative scholarship either quantitatively or qualitatively, what are the investments needed to optimize the impact? Montana has been involved for many years in a program called the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). It is a program aimed at developing research competitiveness primarily in the sciences, but the principles learned from thirty years of the program's existence at the National Science Foundation provide guidance to the development of capacity in any discipline. EPSCoR is based on the premise that as a nation, we will remain competitive only if all of our states contribute to the research challenges before our country. It is also based on the notion that state-based development requires a thriving local research effort grounded in universities.

Investment in people, first and foremost, is essential to optimizing the impact of research and creative scholarship in all disciplines. Faculty members, student researchers, and support staff are at the core of any intellectual enterprise. Recognizing that some research is conducted by relatively large groups of people, while other research and creative scholarship is more typically the domain of individuals working more-or-less alone, human capital is the single most important investment we can make. Additionally, investment in infrastructure to support research is critical. Infrastructure includes the physical facilities, instrumentation and specialized equipment, underlying information technology connectivity and computing power, library resources and staff, and the mechanics of information dissemination. Investments in human networking and communication are often taken for granted, but more systematic thinking about maximizing interactions in a cost-effective manner is warranted. In this regard, technology will play an increasing role as electronic communication approaches ever more closely the characteristics of face-to-face interactions.

Within higher education, we tend to believe that teaching and research are inextricably linked. However, the public policy challenge becomes one of making investments that promote research and scholarship while not detracting from, either in reality or perception, investments in the educational mission of the institution.

Financial investments in higher education

The cost of education in public institutions has historically been borne by two principal partners, the state and the student. Other functions of a University, such as research, may be funded principally by the federal government, some state agencies, and the private sector. The cost-of-living during college has been the responsibility of the student as well, with financial aid, both private and federal, making significant contribution. Student loans provide support at the time of education, but in the long run, those are paid back by the individual upon graduating. Increasingly, private philanthropy can mitigate the cost of education through merit- and need-based scholarships.

The partnership between state and student has undergone a significant shift over time at the national level. According to data summarized by the organization Postsecondary Education Opportunity,/19/ the share of state support and student support in the post-World War II years was essentially equal. Beginning in the late 1950s, state and local government began increasing the share of revenue for higher education, peaking in the 1970s to a point of bearing 60% of the costs. The federal government had entered the picture by this time, funding approximately 12% of the cost, leaving the student with approximately 30%. Since 1978, the state share has declined to an all-time low of 38%. The federal component has remained at 12%, so the student share has risen to slightly over 50%. In actual dollars, state fiscal support per $1,000 of personal income has gone from $3.64 in 1961 to a high of $10.55 in 1979 and back down to $6.30 today.

Montana's profile is similar to that of the nation, but in greater extremes. State support for higher education in Montana reached a high of $13.00 per $1,000 of personal income in 1970, but has fallen to $5.08. Presently, Montana ranks 38th of the 50 states in this metric. Only six states have been able to increase the investment (in dollars per $1,000 of personal income) over the past decade.

Another way to express investment is on a per-student basis. Data from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) show Montana's tuition to be essentially at the national average for public 4-year institutions./20/ At the same time, the state investment is about 2/3 of the national average. At the Missoula and Bozeman campuses, the state investment is closer to 1/2 that of national averages for similar institutions. The conclusion is that Montana's investment in higher education is lower than in most states and we shift a greater share of the cost onto the student than do most states.

The nation must find a way to increase state investment in higher education if it is to meet its collective goals of preparing more and better prepared graduates who will contribute to the opportunities and challenges of today. Likewise, Montana must find its way to making a greater investment or higher education will increasingly be available only to those from higher income brackets.

The trends described here have caused public institutions in a few states to advocate assuming "private" status. The Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, is the most recent to propose distancing the university from state authority./21/

Building a university for the global century

The overall challenge of higher education public policy is to get the most out of our institutions for the resources (broadly speaking) we invest. Whether the desired outcomes are as I have defined above, more graduates, better prepared graduates, higher research productivity, or others, our jobs as educators and public-policy makers are to increase the likelihood that our investments actually affect desired outcomes in a positive way.

Deliberative strategic planning with articulation of desired outcomes and indicators of progress is critical to successful public policy. Actions within the strategic plan must be, to the best of our ability, tightly coupled to desired outcomes. For example, in the complex area of student success, what are the investments most likely to improve retention and graduation rates?

We can't know the extent to which our investments are coupled to outcomes without the second key ingredient, an assessment protocol that provides timely feedback. In the parlance of a feedback loop, we begin the loop by making an adjustment (for example increased funds, new policies, or a change in standards) and watch what happens to the outcome. We measure the outcome and decide if it moved appreciably in the "right" direction. If so, we continue the adjustment in the same direction; if not, we change course. Such a deliberative methodology is rarely fast.

At The University of Montana, a new strategic plan is unfolding, called UM 2020: Building a University for the Global Century. It focuses on five strategic issues and associated metrics of success. The framework of the strategic plan can be found in the University's recent accreditation documents,/22/ which outline five strategic issues: 1) Partnering for Student Success; 2) Education for the Global Century; 3) Discovery and Creativity to Serve Montana and the World; 4) the Dynamic Learning Environment; and 5) the Planning-Assessment Continuum. The strategic plan will become highly visible beginning at the end of spring semester of 2011. At that point, annual objectives, metrics of progress, and resource allocation at the University will be tied increasingly to the strategic plan. In addition, the University now produces an Annual Assessment Report/23/ with which it tracks performance on its major directions. These two tools combine to focus the University's efforts on the major public policy issues described in this paper.


  1. American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Policy Matters: Top 10 Higher Education State Policy Issues for 2011. January, 2011. Available at http://congressweb.com/aascu/docfiles/PM-Top10for2011.docx.pdf.[Back]
  2. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Higher Ed Issues. Available at http://www.aplu.org/NetCommunity/.[Back]
  3. D.J. Staley and D.A. Trinkle, "The Changing Landscape of Higher Education," Educause Review 46.1 (2011): 16-32.[Back]
  4. A. Colby, E. Beaumont, T. Ehrlich, and J. Corngold, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Stanford, 2007).[Back]
  5. D. Acker, Can State Universities be Managed? (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2006).[Back]
  6. D.B. Johnstone and P.N. Marcucci, Financing Higher Education Worldwide (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).[Back]
  7. J.V. Wellman, "Apples and Oranges in the Flat World: A Layperson's Guide to International Comparisons of Postsecondary Education," in Informed Practice: Synthesis of Higher Education Research for Campus Leaders (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2007).[Back]
  8. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. See http://www.oecd.org/.[Back]
  9. National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Student Pipeline—Transition and Completion Rates from 9th Grade to College (2008). Available at http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?measure=72.[Back]
  10. A.P. Carnevale, N. Smith, and J. Strohl, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2011). Available at http://cew.georgetown.edu/JOBS2018/.[Back]
  11. Montana University System Strategic Plan 2011. Available at http://mus.edu/data/strategicplan.asp.[Back]
  12. For example, J. Offenstein, C. Moore, and N. Shulock, "Advancing by Degrees: A Framework for Increasing College Completion," The Education Trust (April 2010): 1-21. Available at http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED511863&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED511863.[Back]
  13. College Learning for the New Global Century (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), 1.[Back]
  14. G. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).[Back]
  15. J.E. Brownell and L.E. Swaner, Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).[Back]
  16. W. McMahon, Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 262.[Back]
  17. Montana University System Strategic Plan: Research and Development. Available at http://mus.edu/data/12_Goal_2_Research_Development_2011.pdf.[Back]
  18. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Available at http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/.[Back]
  19. "State Fiscal Support for Higher Education FY1961 to FY2011," Postsecondary Education Opportunity 224 (February 2011).[Back]
  20. Dennis Jones, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.[Back]
  21. J. Stripling, "Flagships Just Want to be Alone," Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 March 2011, A1-A4.[Back]
  22. Available at http://www.umt.edu/planningassessmentcontinuum/assess/assessdocs/UMyear1report2011.pdf.[Back]
  23. Available at http://www.umt.edu/planningassessmentcontinuum/assess/assessdocs/AssessmentReport2010.pdf.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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