Commentary: A Compact for Post-Secondary Education

By: - December 17, 2007 12:00 am

High-quality post-secondary education is crucial to ensuring America’s competitiveness in the global economy. U.S. colleges and universities equip our students with advanced critical-thinking and adaptive skills to generate new knowledge and solve problems. While America’s public post-secondary education system is still highly prized, many countries around the world are not only improving on our system, they are developing new models-models that link more closely to the innovation needs of these countries’ industries and regions and that are graduating a growing number of highly qualified students, particularly in science, math and engineering.

The United States must ensure that its higher-education institutions consistently produce highly skilled graduates equipped to innovate and compete on an international scale. Unfortunately, there are signs the United States is now falling behind, not only in elementary and secondary education, but in higher education:

  • Among adults ages 25 to 34, the United States has slipped to eighth in the proportion who hold a college degree, behind Canada, Japan, Korea, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Belgium. Furthermore, countries such as Spain, France, Ireland, Australia and Denmark are about to surpass the United States in this category.
  • Among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, 19 have higher graduation rates for post-secondary institutions than the 54 percent experienced by the United States. Japan, with a 91 percent post-secondary graduation rate, and Ireland and Korea, each with 83 percent, are the true leaders.
  • Many U.S. public colleges and institutions have not kept up with the need to produce highly qualified nurses, engineers, scientists and K-12 teachers in science and math.
  • Tuition at U.S. colleges and universities continues to rise at a rate two to three times as fast as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all goods and services.

The economic future of states is becoming increasingly dependent on how well their post-secondary systems adapt to the new global economic reality. Over the last decade, governors focused mostly on reforming K-12 education and have been less concerned about their state post-secondary education systems. Tuition increases, which are now squeezing middle-income families, combined with slipping graduation rates and the realization that many graduates do not possess the skills necessary to compete in the new international marketplace, is creating renewed interest in the accountability of state public post-secondary education systems. This accountability of public higher education systems to the states (or in actuality, to taxpayers) that own and fund the institutions currently is limited because of complex governance structures and the size of many post-secondary institutions.

States are beginning to collect data and perform audits and evaluations of their present and future labor-force skill requirements, particularly for critical industries that compete in the international marketplace. This is being followed by evaluations of the state post-secondary system in meeting these needs. Once these needs assessments have been completed, states should convene the four major stakeholders-state government as a proxy for taxpayers, governing boards, the post-secondary system leadership and the private sector-to see whether they are willing to negotiate broad agreements or compacts regarding goals, outputs, priorities and individual commitments.

To return America’s post-secondary education system to the first-class status it once enjoyed, each stakeholder must be willing to make commitments that strengthen post-secondary education. For instance, the system should commit to graduating a given number of high-quality students with the skills and training needed by critical industries, as well as graduating high-quality teachers, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. States, meanwhile, should commit to funding any expansion in graduates as well as to funding research and development (R&D) in key areas that would benefit critical state industries. It also will be important for states to provide a certain amount of budget stability over time. For its part, the private sector should guarantee it will match a percentage of state R&D funding since it is receiving a trained labor force and state R&D dollars, both of which allow companies to compete more effectively in the new highly competitive world market. Universities should commit to states and, therefore, to citizens and taxpayers that tuition increases will be held to a minimum.

This mutual-benefit/mutual-commitment compact would involve difficult negotiation. But in the end, it would result in a mutual- accountability system, and all stakeholders would become winners. Once all stakeholders agree on outputs and metrics to measure success and failure, they then could move to the next step of accountability, which could include bonuses and sanctions for meeting targets. For the first few years, full transparency to the public regarding failure and success may be sufficient to demonstrate progress in this area.

Clearly, citizens and taxpayers as well as state government leaders are no longer willing to give the state public higher-education system a pass. Graduation rates are too low, costs are too high and graduates often lack the skills necessary to compete with graduates of new universities in India, Japan and other countries.

Not only do we need more accountability in our post-secondary education system, but we need to forge much stronger public-private partnerships among government, the private sector and academia. Where we have been able to do this effectively in the past, the public has reaped huge benefits. Public post-secondary compacts are a critical first step.

Raymond C. Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Governors Association.

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