From the issue dated April 4, 2008
Ohio's Governor Presses Plan to Overhaul Higher Education
By JJ HERMES
When Ohio's governor took office, just over a year ago, he vowed to make overhauling higher education a top priority.
The situation did not look good: In his view, tuition was rising too fast, and too few of the state's residents held college degrees.
Over the preceding decade, the price tag of a college education in Ohio had increased by an average of 9 percent a year. Barely one in three adults had earned associate degrees or higher.
"It was a totally unacceptable pattern emerging," Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said in a recent interview.
So now, even as the state faces at least a $733-million deficit, Governor Strickland promises to protect colleges from budget cuts and to hold the line on tuition.
He also seeks broad changes. Like many Rust Belt leaders, who for decades have watched factories close and jobs disappear, Mr. Strickland sees higher education as key to reinventing his state's flagging economy.
He has moved aggressively to reorganize Ohio's colleges and universities, changing how they are governed in ways that he hopes will encourage them to focus more on how they can help Ohio transcend its eroded manufacturing base.
This week the state's higher-education chancellor, whom the governor has put in charge of the overhaul, was scheduled to present a 10-year plan to increase the proportion of residents with college degrees and foster closer collaboration among the colleges.
For now, many college leaders say they are optimistic that their institutions will be well served by Ohio's governor and his long-term plans. But some are hesitant to count on widespread change; they have seen such ambitious proposals before, with only minimal progress.
Oversight by Cabinet
Ohio's Republican-led legislature helped Mr. Strickland take early steps toward his goals when it shook up higher-education governance in March 2007, giving the governor the authority to appoint to his cabinet a chancellor to oversee colleges. Advocates of the change said it would allow the administration to act more aggressively to improve Ohio's institutions.
"When I became governor, I found I had limited ability to affect what was happening in higher education," Governor Strickland says. He sees the new position of chancellor as key to promoting his education agenda.
Before state legislators gave the governor the power to appoint a chancellor, the Ohio Board of Regents, the statewide coordinating board for higher education, tapped Eric D. Fingerhut, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and former state senator, for the job. Governor Strickland praised the choice of Mr. Fingerhut, who briefly challenged him in 2006 for the Democratic nomination for governor, and has treated the chancellor as his own appointment.
The cabinet-level position has energized the statewide conversation about overhauling higher education. It also makes Ohio one of only a handful of states — including Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, and New Mexico — that let their governors directly appoint a chief higher-education official.
Richard Novak, vice president for public-sector programs at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, says other states are changing their laws to allow such appointments. The move, he said, seems to be driven by budget constraints, rising tuition, and growing enrollments.
"There is this sense that we need to initiate change much more quickly than we have in the past," Mr. Novak says.
He agrees that state leaders need to learn to adapt to shifting environments more quickly, but he believes that states should consider using existing structures to bring about change.
"There is the risk that you could align an office of higher education too closely with one political party or individual," Mr. Novak says. "What you may gain in the short term, you might lose in longer-term stability and continuity."
In August, Governor Strickland called on the chancellor to deliver the 10-year plan as a formal proposal. He also ordered the creation of the University System of Ohio, which will oversee the state's 13 public universities, 24 branch campuses, and 23 community colleges.
Mr. Fingerhut says his plan focuses on three core goals: improving the academic quality of the main campuses at state universities, enrolling more nontraditional students, and accelerating college readiness among high-school students.
Among the changes he suggests are moving away from an enrollment-driven formula for distributing state funds, consolidating oversight of the state's adult-education centers, and giving universities that increase the amount of need-based aid they offer more flexibility in setting tuition.
Many of the plan's expected recommendations were promoted earlier by the governor, including a program that would allow high-school seniors to enroll in local, college-level courses without paying tuition. The state already has provided $4-million in grants to school districts to prepare for the program, known as Seniors to Sophomores.
Early drafts of the 10-year plan were circulated to college leaders. The drafts featured proposals for accountability measures to gauge progress in enrolling and graduating more students. While more quantitative oversight might worry some administrators, most college officials in Ohio say they welcome the idea.
"What higher education has lacked and continues to fail at is to develop measurements," says Lloyd A. Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo. "What you can't measure, you can't fix."
Governor Strickland has already set one numerical goal for Ohio colleges. In his first State of the State address, last year, he called on them to graduate an additional 230,000 students over the next 10 years, in part by better utilizing branch campuses and community colleges.
Signals of Support
Ohio's higher-education leaders are optimistic about Mr. Fingerhut's plan, in part because they view it as a signal that the state's leaders have largely adopted the idea that colleges are central to prospects of reviving the state's economy.
That link, however, has been recognized before. In 2003, Mr. Strickland's predecessor, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, created a commission on higher education and the economy. The 33-member panel, which included Mr. Fingerhut, released a report in 2004 that urged the state to focus its attention on higher education as a way to revitalize its economy.
But by 2005 that report was essentially being overlooked, and state appropriations for higher education failed to keep pace with inflation. College leaders say they have reason to hope that the outcome will be better this time around.
"What we've seen with Governor Strickland coming in is the amplification of those ideas, with the bipartisan help of the legislature," says Steven Lee Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College.
A key indication to college leaders that Mr. Strickland is truly committed to higher education came this year, he says, when he developed his budget plan. Despite a projected shortfall in revenue, he recommended keeping higher-education funds intact.
He did not recommend any cuts in the nearly $2.38-billion that colleges are receiving from the state this year, an amount that represents a 7.7-percent increase over the previous fiscal year. The governor also proposed continuing to finance a statewide freeze on tuition that has been in effect for two years.
"In my judgment, higher education had been the budget whipping boy for far too long," he says. "It was time to keep faith with higher education."
The governor says Ohio's sagging economy led him to propose closing two psychiatric hospitals and require some state agencies to cut their central-office staffs by 20 percent. "It wasn't that we didn't have to make tough decisions," he says. "But we did that while protecting higher education."
Now Mr. Fingerhut is looking to advance the governor's goals through the 10-year plan, which could still face obstacles despite its apparent momentum.
Even with the governor making higher education a top priority, budget realities still make it difficult for state leaders to finance all of their long-term goals.
But Ohio and its colleges desperately need to focus their higher-education agenda on the broad public good, regardless of budget pressures, says Mr. Jacobs, of Toledo.
"You first think about what this will mean for your grandchildren," he says. "And then you see what will make the finances work."
Section: Money & Management
Volume 54, Issue 30, Page A15
Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education