Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Understanding State Higher Education Systems: Applying a New Framework

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Understanding State Higher Education Systems: Applying a New Framework

Article excerpt


An old fable tells of three blind men who each describe a different part of an elephant but are unable to collectively determine that what they have before them is indeed an elephant. This analogy is somewhat applicable to the study of higher education systems. Past efforts have examined different parts of the higher education system--institutional administration, governance structures, and state policy environments--yet describing it holistically has remained elusive.

Some researchers have attempted to bridge two or more pieces of the higher education system elephant; others have focused on a single piece. Eulau and Quinley's (1970) historic study of legislative leaders in nine states sought the state policymaker perspective of higher education on issues ranging from finance to governance. Foundational governance investigations (Berdahl, 1971; Glenny, 1959; Millet, 1984) articulated the purpose of governance structures and primarily studied higher education autonomy in relation to the state.

More recent studies have built on these past themes or continued along similar lines (AGB, 1998; Hearn & Griswold 1994; Jones & Skolnik, 1997; Marcus, 1997; Martinez, 1999; McGuinness, Epper, & Arrendondo, 1994; Schick, Novak, Norton, & Elam, 1992). They have examined issues of governance structure impact and change, legislative and trustee perceptions, and internal factors that contributed to changes in structure.

In 1994 the California Higher Education Policy Center initiated an effort to develop a conceptual, holistic understanding of state higher education systems by not only studying higher education structures but the environment in which the structures lived. The study defined a state system of higher education to include public and private postsecondary institutions as well as the arrangements for regulating, coordinating, and funding them. The culmination of this work (Richardson, ReevesBranco, Callan, & Finney, 1999) was a framework that integrated theoretical notions with seven empirical case studies.

The framework was intended to aid policymakers and higher education leaders in determining if a state's policy priorities and the role it assumed aligned with higher education's structure. In effect, it considered organizational design and performance within the context of the system's policy and management environment.


The purpose of this research was to investigate the applicability of an existing higher education systems framework, along with its definitions, to a case-study state that was not used in its derivation. Yin's (1994) notion of analytical generalization was especially germane as I was trying to determine if Richardson et al.'s existing framework could help me understand similar issues (policymaker role, governance structures, and higher education performance) upon which the framework was built but in a different setting. The questions I sought to answer included: (1) Did the framework aid in the descriptive construction and analysis of the case study? and (2) Through my analysis, what could I confirm about the framework and what could be extended, modified, or refined to help future research?

Regarding the first question, I was specifically interested in compatibility between the state's policy role toward higher education and the higher education structure. An ingrained assumption in this question was that noteworthy issues outside the boundaries of the framework could surface, and methodology should accommodate for that possibility. The second question highlights that I was taking an existing framework not knowing whether evidence from my case would produce inconsistencies or contradictions that might question specific elements of the framework. My task would then be to explain the details of why a specific element of the framework did or did not work. …

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