Attention state legislators: Your universities need your help. (And for that matter, your K-12 public school districts could stand some attention.) Here's the deal. They can do all sorts of good things for you--produce graduates, keep tuition rates stable, provide the bridges from high school to college to jobs--but it's awfully hard for them to focus on any of that when they're wondering what their funding will be next month. We know you're struggling to balance your budgets, and it's not a simple task to feed all the hungry chicks in your nest. But trust me, all you need to do is provide the tiniest bit of certainty and your university presidents can do amazing things. They're very smart. Here's how it can work:
Example One: In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich recently reached an agreement with the public universities and community colleges to tie their funding to student completion. Four-year universities will have 50 percent of their state funding (about $600 million) linked to the number of students who graduate with a degree. In community colleges, all funding will be linked to students who complete a course or a credit.
The Ohio deal is a game changer because for the first time, all the state's higher education institutions will focus on student completion rather than enrollment. It also shows that universities can actually work with state lawmakers if they are willing to be proactive and cooperative. Tangentially, some unhelpful cultural barriers were broken, like community college presidents mingling with research university presidents. "In my world, the notion of me sitting down with a community college president, and then a dialogue, and then a conclusion, and then a process, and then a relationship--it was something we didn't do," said Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, who led the schools in the talks.
Example Two: In New York, the City University of New York and the State University of New York recently reached an agreement with the state budgeteers for level funding over the next five years. In exchange, the schools agreed to limit tuition increases to $300 per year. CUNY's graduate school is using their new-found budget certainty to shorten the time it takes for students to earn and advanced degrees and focus on making sure their graduates are employed. That means decreasing the size of incoming classes by 25 percent, increasing stipends, and targeting the curriculum to areas where students can easily find work. (Sorry, Chaucerian Ph.Ds.) CUNY's plan has been in the works for 10 years, according to the school's Graduate Center President Bill Kelly. It was only finalized once the funding was secure. "Until the agreement with the state was realized, it was very difficult to make any proactive plan," he said. "At the root of it is 'Where are the resources to do this?'"
School administrators have lots of great ideas about how to improve student achievement, close gaps, and offer career training. College presidents of all stripes showed they are serious last week when they penned an open letter calling on all higher education institutions to make college completion and retention a critical goal.
Each school will have a different way of increasing graduation rates, but those ideas are mere fiction until the educators get the green light to take the first step. They are paralyzed if they are preparing for a money drought. Since most of the money for schools comes from states, it's up to the state legislatures to make school and university leaders feel comfortable enough to experiment with new models.
How can state legislatures work better with higher education institutions? How can they work better with school districts? What barriers do state education systems face in encouraging innovation in their schools? Does regional diversity or the variety of schools hurt the efforts? How can collaborative environments be fostered between state legislators and schools? What planning can be done even when budgets are insecure?