State Postsecondary Policy Innovation: Politics, Competition, and the Interstate Migration of Policy Ideas

By McLendon, Michael K.; Heller, Donald E. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

State Postsecondary Policy Innovation: Politics, Competition, and the Interstate Migration of Policy Ideas


McLendon, Michael K., Heller, Donald E., Young, Steven P., Journal of Higher Education


Over the course of nearly 50 years of shifting governance patterns in American postsecondary education, the issue of state-level policy innovation has remained near the center of discussion. In the immediate postwar era of the 1950s-1960s, each state in the nation centralized decision-making in its postsecondary systems by establishing or strengthening the power of existing regulatory coordinating boards and consolidated governing boards in an attempt to bring greater order, rationality, and coherence to rapid nationwide increases in postsecondary enrollment and funding. In most states, these new boards replaced considerably less powerful advisory coordinating boards or planning agencies through which public campuses in an earlier era had voluntarily organized themselves to interface with governmental institutions and to respond to state demands. Through the regulatory coordinating board, states superimposed upon campuses a powerful new entity whose responsibility was to make centralized academic and fiscal decisions for an entire state. In consolidated governing boards, states achieved a highly centralized form of campus governance, whereby a single board was empowered to make all day-today management decisions for institutions within a particular system, sector, or state (Berdahl, 1971; McGuinness, 1997).

At the time, advocates of centralized control claimed the new boards would improve the nature of postsecondary education policy-making by state governments. The argument made in support of centralized governance was that "poorly informed, inadequately coordinated actions would be replaced by knowledgeable planning, adaptation, and policy development" (Hearn & Griswold, 1994, p. 161). Among the supposed benefits of centralized planning and policy development would be greater state policy innovation (Callan, 1975; McConnell, 1962; Mortimer & McConnell, 1982). Advocates of centralized governance argued that the nonpartisan professionals that would staff the new state-level boards would bring increased technical knowledge and analytical capacity to bear on the management of postsecondary systems, thereby providing elected officials (e.g., legislatures and governors) and their staffs with new ideas for improving postsecondary access, quality, affordability, and productivity.

Whereas centralization of postsecondary governance was the dominant trend of the 1950s-1970s, the period of the 1980s-1990s, by contrast, was one characterized by diverse "restructuring" of state postsecondary governance patterns (Marcus, 1997; McLendon, 2003b). Emerging as an important countertrend during this more recent era was what some observers have termed the "decentralization" or "deregulation" of postsecondary governance from the state-level to more local levels of campus control (Couturier, 2003; MacTaggart, 1998; Schmidt, 2001). Again, the capability of states to design new, effective postsecondary policies was as a point of debate, but with critics of strong regulatory structures now asserting that centralized governance may inhibit policy innovation in the postsecondary arena because government bureaucracies are inherently resistant to new ideas (Berdahl & MacTaggart, 2000; Hebel, 2000; MacTaggart, 1998).

State policy innovation in the postsecondary education arena is an important question both for state governments and for the postsecondary sector. The question is an important one for the states because their investment in postsecondary education is vast: state governments appropriate in excess of $63 billion annually in direct support of public colleges and universities. Additionally, while policy innovation inherently is neither good nor bad, innovation in the public arena often is interpreted as a positive sign of the health of governmental institutions--innovation means that policymakers are responsive to new ideas, to the preferences of citizens, and to changing environmental conditions (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992). …

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