Monday, December 28, 2009

A Test of Leadership

When the history of American higher education in the 21st century is written, I suspect the end of the first decade will be known for two resounding themes: the growing importance of community colleges, and a move from college access to a focus on college success. The vocabulary of this important time centers on words like efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness. These are terms that, thanks in no small part to the work of foundations like Lumina and Gates, finally have traction among both administrators and consumers of higher ed. In a very real sense, this is nothing less than astounding progress for an institution built primarily to enroll students privileged enough to attend college-- and not necessarily to graduate them.

For the latest--and greatest-- example of this sea change we can look to Indiana. Faced with ever-common declines in resources for higher education, leaders in that state are reportedly rethinking business as usual. Typically, budget cuts are distributed across the board, doled out as necessary, and intended to simply save money but not accomplish much else. Indiana's Commission of Higher Education is hoping to shake things up this time around by assigning cuts to colleges and universities based partly on performance. Specifically, the Commission recommends spurring statewide, system, academic, and operating efficiencies by allocating the $150 million in cuts based on per-student state funding, completion rates, and availability of federal stimulus funds.

This is an audacious move, and one that Governor Mitch Daniels should embrace. He should do so not because there's a robust body of evidence suggesting that the plan will work (such evidence doesn't exist, to my knowledge) but rather because we really need to know if it could. The "winners" would seem to be the state's community colleges-- they would take the small proportion of the cuts-- but that success should be measured not in terms of dollars gained or lost, but in terms of change incurred. Governor Daniels should lead the way not only by making this policy shift, but also by ensuring that its effects are evaluated. Do those colleges most affected by a distribution shift-- from enrollment to performance--see the greatest alterations in their outcomes? Are any negative consequences observed at those schools, versus others?

Indiana's providing a fantastic opportunity-- a chance for other states to learn both from its ambitious leadership, and from its policy innovations. I hope in 2010 we see more states making similarly bold moves.