Shaking Up the Decision-Making Channels in Postsecondary Education

Postsecondary & Workforce

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Decisions about postsecondary education priorities, policies and practices are largely driven by how states divvy up authority and responsibilities through their governance systems. In the past couple of years and for various reasons, state policymakers and postsecondary leaders seem intent on shaking up these decision-making channels and structures.

Postsecondary governance is partly about who sits at the table to call the shots on, and carry out, policies and programs, which include serving an increasingly diverse student population and achieving statewide education and workforce goals. State higher education boards and agencies, postsecondary system and institutional governing boards, and campus leaders are part of governance systems. And governors and legislators continue to promote initiatives and enact laws that influence the relationships among these players and opportunities for students’ success. Here are a few examples:

In 2016, the Tennessee governor proposed the Focus On College and University Success Act as a next step in the Drive to 55 initiative to increase the state’s attainment rate. Lawmakers responded by enacting Public Chapter 869 that allowed six state universities to break ties with the Tennessee Board of Regents and establish their own boards of trustees. The board of regents continues to govern 13 community colleges and 27 applied technical colleges, which do not have individual boards. In part, the restructuring was pushed by some state universities that wanted more autonomy to direct their own course. The governor noted that the reorganization allows the board of regents, through the community and technical colleges, to zero in on meeting Tennessee’s workforce demands and attainment goal. The legislation also expanded certain responsibilities of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to coordinate policies and programs across the state.

After a previous attempt, a group of four-year institutions in West Virginia wrestled more authority away from the state-level coordinating board and agency when the governor signed H.B. 2815 this year. The law exempts the universities from several provisions related to oversight by the Higher Education Policy Commission. While the legislation diminished the commission’s authority with respect to these institutions, the agency continues to serve a coordinating role with other four-year institutions and collaborate with the Council for Community and Technical College Education.

At the system level, the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education’s president recently proposed consolidating the 12 community colleges into one accredited institution under the Students First initiative. The move is intended to create a more cost-efficient system and streamlined processes for students to enroll and complete degrees or transfer to four-year campuses. The proposal follows an overhaul of Connecticut’s governance structure through the 2011 budget bill that eliminated the statewide coordinating agency and consolidated the state universities, community colleges and an online college under a single board of regents. The University of Connecticut remains a separate, independent system.

Prompted by significant declines in enrollment and funding at the 13 two-year colleges, the University of Wisconsin System’s president announced a plan last month to merge these campuses with the 13 four-year institutions. The restructuring proposal would create regional clusters for the campuses, avoid school closures, and allow the two-year colleges to maintain their open access mission and lower tuition rates. Ensuring financial viability of the two-year campuses appears to be a top priority, but system officials also tout the plan’s benefits of offering more courses at the integrated campuses and leveraging resources and faculty talent across institutions.

We will have to stay tuned to see how these adopted and proposed governance changes play out. Reorganizing higher education systems and shifting responsibilities is not a minor undertaking — and not without trade-offs. Governance reforms, for example, may affect the mechanisms to pursue state or systemwide objectives, as well as to serve the needs of local communities.

We will continue to track state and system activity, as part of our work on postsecondary governance. Contact Mary Fulton if you have questions, comments or ideas about higher education governance.

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Mary Fulton is a former senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

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