The States and Public Higher Education Policy: Affordability, Access, and Accountability

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The States and Public Higher Education Policy: Affordability, Access, and Accountability

Donald E. Heller, ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001


Donald Heller and the other thirteen contributors to this study propose that affordability, access, and accountability are the three key issues in higher education today, and they are certainly on the right trail. National interest has been focused on affordability and access since the creation of the G.I. Bill and the President's Commission on Higher Education after World War II. The commission, established by President Truman in 1947, correctly assumed that it had public support for its recommendations for affordable and accessible higher education, primarily as a preventive against the further development of class divisions. In the 1940s and 1950s, the public trusted that higher education would serve the interests of students and the nation.

During the 1960s and 1970s, however, some of that public trust was lost. As costs grew, public officials and taxpayers began to wonder if they were getting their money's worth from education. Accountability joined affordability and access as a key concern.

Of these three concerns, affordability is the most easily and reliably measured, and the book's chapters dealing with that subject are thorough. The problems of state funding are outlined clearly and fully. One contributor, David Breneman, asks how merit-based programs (for example, federal tuition tax credits or Georgia's HOPE scholarship program) may restrict access for minorities and low-income families by favoring middle- and upper-income families. The book presents a series of possible solutions to this problem of affordable access. Unfortunately, all of them focus on policy makers, who tend to be bureaucrats, and not on politicians, who tend to reflect public opinion and are also crucial in the change-making process.

In his essay, contributor Michael Mumper, in the second chapter, asks why both costs and enrollment are rising. In search of answers, he interviewed policy makers from eleven states. Mumper notes that his research findings are tentative and confusing and concludes, in proper educationese, that "each participant in the tuition-- setting process must construct for him-- or herself an operational understanding of the contested dynamics that drive college costs and prices." In this and other chapters, the reader is presented with inconclusive information.

Assessing access is even more difficult, since little reliable data exists, and some of the chapters on these topics, such as the one by Sylvia Hurtado and Heather Cade and the one by Brian Pusser, fall victim to the problem of unexamined assumptions. The authors note that the 1980s and 1990s were periods of narrowing access for minorities, primarily due to restrictions on affirmative action, quotas, and positions set aside to be filled by members of specific minority groups. Their conclusions are similar to those of participants at a 2001 meeting in Atlanta of the Education Leaders Council, who charged that bad education policy was responsible for failing schools and identified the culprits as political leaders, policy makers, education bureaucrats, teachers' unions, and politically or ideologically motivated research studies. …