Higher education: Planning for the 21st century

fedgaztte Editorial

David R. Powers

Published January 1, 1992  | January 1992 issue

Higher education faces its greatest challenges in decades. States are looking to higher education as the way to become more competitive, both nationally and globally. In Minnesota, education is seen as a strategic resource for the quality of life and economic competitiveness.

An increasingly diverse population of students—in terms of age, sex, attendance status and racial and ethnic background—is seeking opportunities to pursue accessible, high quality higher education.

Higher education must respond to demands from the state and students, as well as from business and industry, in a climate of changing demographics, reduced budgets and an eroding public image caused by concerns ranging from loan defaults to campus crime.

Sensitive to these rapidly changing dynamics and desiring a blueprint for the 21st century, the 1988 Minnesota legislature directed its state higher education agency, the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board (MHECB), to study the state's post-secondary education needs. The project was completed in March 1991.

Known as M SPAN 2000 (Minnesota Study of Post-Secondary Access and Needs), the project was designed to identify Minnesota conditions, trends and emerging educational needs; analyze potential strategies to meet needs; and evaluate costs and implications of strategies. A key goal was to develop a framework for policy decisions.

What Minnesota learned may be instructive to other states.

First, we learned that Minnesota has established a solid foundation of higher education. Geographic access is not a problem for most Minnesotans. A post-secondary institution is within commuting distance of virtually every Minnesotan either in the state, or in neighboring jurisdictions through reciprocity arrangements with Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and the Canadian province of Manitoba. Membership in the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has farther enhanced access, as might Minnesota's membership in the new Midwestern Higher Education Commission.

In fact, Minnesota may have developed too many post-secondary educational institutions and campuses.

Second, while affordability remains a concern for students and families, Minnesota has succeeded in achieving a fundamental goal: that all residents, regardless of their economic situations, have an equal opportunity to pursue the post-secondary education that can best meet their educational needs. This is a result of the state's strong support for student financial aid.

Despite our success in achieving geographic and financial access, we need to be concerned about other types of access: logistical access which is sensitive to the needs of placebound and timebound students; psychological access, which provides a sense of belonging to potential students; and cultural access which is sensitive to race or ethnic background. And we need to determine how best to provide educational services to those currently employed who will want to stay competitive in the job market. In a knowledge based economy, with concern for global competitiveness, this "new learner" must be served.

New conditions, however, will require post-secondary education to change the way it delivers programs and services. Whereas higher education policy decisions in the 1980s were based on growing enrollments and increasing public expenditures, planning for the 1990s and beyond will be focused not on increasing the size of post-secondary education, but on changing its shape, serving different students in different locations with different programs. Most, if not all, of the financing for new initiatives will need to come from redistributing resources.

Post-secondary education will need to become more efficient, not because post-secondary education can be provided with less money, but because the resources saved are needed to finance changes that will maintain Minnesota's educational advantage.

Given this environment, we concluded that Minnesota needs to address a geographic mismatch of existing institutions and the location of the projected student population.

By the year 2007, three-fourths of the state's high school graduates will be from the 18-county area extending from Rochester and Winona through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to St. Cloud, up from 67 percent in 1990. Yet 43 of the state's 67 public campuses are in Greater Minnesota, which has two-thirds of the population. In several communities, two campuses are located in close proximity. Without reducing service, some consolidation can be educationally sound and cost effective.

As a result, Minnesota needs to rethink its post-secondary infrastructure. Significant efficiencies and improvements in the management of Minnesota post-secondary education should occur through structural changes during the 1990s.

Further, instructional programs need be reviewed and consolidated because of mismatch between program capacity and offerings and student demand. Quality increasingly must be the focus of attention. We weaken quality when we spread ourselves too thin. Perhaps less central or least cost-effective programs should be phased out to make room for new programs.

Telecommunications and other instructional technologies need to be integrated into the process of delivering programs, especially in underserved areas. Use of technology can enrich the options available, especially when no viable alternative exists.

And, Minnesota needs to develop an aggressive science, engineering and technology strategy to maintain competitiveness as a high-tech state. The number of engineering graduates is decreasing despite nine new programs between 1983 and 1988, and the number of students with interest in and preparation for entering technical fields is decreasing.

To address these conclusions, the Coordinating Board made five major proposals.

First, Minnesota's post-secondary education physical capacity should better match demographic conditions and promote efficient program delivery: that is, no new campuses should be developed beyond current commitments. Increased use should be made of telecommunications and other instructional technology for program delivery. Computer-based technology and interactive television hold much promise to redefine the word access. It no longer is just buildings and geography.

Second, post-secondary education should be restructured to enhance educational opportunities and managerial efficiency. Several actions will accomplish this: a reduction in the number of public systems and campuses by the year 2000, the initiation of cooperative program planning across all higher education systems and institutions within each region of the state, increased use of regional administrative structures within systems, and total state-level governance of technical colleges (as opposed to the shared state and local school district authority).

Third, greater efficiencies need to be achieved through selective reduction in number of programs. Higher education systems and institutions will need to develop and implement strong program management strategies that promote increased productivity, less duplication, better review of programs and delivery of programs through technology.

Fourth, we need to continue and extend commitments to enrolling and graduating more students of color and improving the campus climate for cultural diversity. Despite significant growth in minority enrollments—50 percent between 1983 and 1990—minority high school graduates, overall, participate in post-secondary education at a lower rate than white high school students.

As a result, higher education needs to collaborate with elementary and secondary schools to improve academic preparation, high school graduation rates and transition to post-secondary education. We need to ensure support for academic programs, student services and campus life that assure students of color are provided a supportive learning environment, and that all students become better prepared to live in a multicultural world.

Fifth, we need to improve mathematics and science education for all students and raise the number of students choosing science, technology and math majors and occupations. We need to increase academic expectations of students, provide enrichment opportunities for secondary school students and improve teacher education and teaching strategies in mathematics and the sciences so that students master the material.

Minnesota's policy-makers have adopted many recommendations that respond directly or indirectly to the M SPAN 2000 report.

The most dramatic legislative action was passage of a three-way merger, effective July 1, 1995, of Minnesota's technical college system, community college system and state university system.

Much is yet to unfold. Time will be needed to interpret and implement the various plans and recent legislative mandates. The challenges and choices will be difficult.

Minnesota, like all states, will need to determine its spending priorities and understand the extent to which investment in higher education is central to the economic development and future vitality of the state itself. Within higher education what should be the cost to the taxpayer vs. the cost to the student and family? With the growing demand for higher education services and constrained resources, what will be the impact on quality? And how can higher education become more efficient?

Many of the answers will be driven by economic realities; for the first time in 33 years, state governments appropriated less money for higher education this year than last year, according to a recent study by the Center for Higher Education at Illinois State. Mid-year budget cuts were reported by 45 percent of institutions nationally in 1990-91, according to the American Council on Education.

Current responses by colleges to the recession, however, may not be temporary. Many public and private institutions are undertaking a probing reassessment and realignment of their roles.

Minnesota, through M SPAN 2000, has this process well underway, and has a policy framework in place that will enable it to be responsive and flexible to face the challenges of the 21st century.