Monday, April 7, 2014

Needed: New Strands of Research in Higher Education Finance and Public Policy

by Christopher M. Mullin, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Policy and Research at the State University System of Florida, Board of Governors and Jennifer A. Delaney, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The field of higher education has benefitted from the contributions of researchers applying various methodologies, frameworks, and perspectives. Using these tools, higher education public policy and finance scholars have shaped our collective understanding of the higher education enterprise.

The field of higher education finance has a number of important strands. For example, there exists a strong and enduring strand in the research literature that focuses on a student’s response to price, there is a strand devoted to examining how student aid is structured and delivered to impact student outcomes, there is a strand that examines the economic returns to college, there are studies focused on institutional expenditures and unit costs that drive the prices students pay, and a line of research on the models that allocate funding to public colleges, such as performance-based funding.

At the intersection of higher education finance and public policy, there are a number of important areas of inquiry and we often find both academics and policymakers working in this space. For example, there are reports that examine trends in higher education finance (such as reports from the College Board, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers).

These and other strands of research in the higher education finance and public policy fields are important and have informed (and likely will continue to inform) policy at the institutional, state, and federal levels to improve opportunity for the students who enroll, to advance innovations in research, and to strengthen communities.

There is yet one line of inquiry that we believe needs greater attention: efficiency and adequacy in higher education. Neither of these are new concepts, but higher education scholars tend to shy away from research on these subjects. On the campus and in the state capital where we work, we often hear deans and policymakers asking us to meet certain outcomes with a limited discussion of the resources required to meet these new outcome levels. However, we know little from a research standpoint about what this will entail or the impact that this approach will have.

Johnstone (1999) has written that the concepts of access, quality, and efficiency are in tension in higher education and are often treated as a zero sum game such that enhancing one will lead to reductions in the others. While there is rich scholarship in the areas of access and quality, scholarly research on efficiency is much sparser. Contributions to the field often discuss how to balance access and quality. Both of these goals can be accomplished through the allocation of additional resources. However, we have a much more limited understanding of how to efficiently maintain, or increase, both access and quality. This idea of efficiency needs to be researched and engaged in policy discussions. The field needs scholarship in all three areas to better understand the ways in which the finance of higher education either enhances or limits social mobility, social justice, equity, and both the preservation and creation of knowledge in postsecondary institutions.

Research to determine adequacy is not uncommon in K-12 finance and we believe that we have entered an era in which these arguments will increasingly impact higher education policy decisions. Adequacy not only has utility for institutions in terms of benchmarking their expenditures to the outcomes they seek to produce, it has an impact on access, equity, and success. Research on adequacy allows for conversations about the appropriate shares each revenue source contributes given the substantial returns to education. We also believe that better decisions can be made if based on a robust foundation of scholarship that considers efficiency in postsecondary settings and adequacy of funding at all levels of higher education.

A few scholars have written about efficiency in higher education at a conceptual level and the tension among access (equity), quality, and efficiency. In addition, a couple scholars have applied ideas of adequacy to the study of equity in higher education. However, we believe that more research like this should be done in the fields of higher education finance and public policy.

About the Bloggers
Jennifer A. Delaney served as a co-chair of Division J, Section 5 for the 2014 AERA annual meeting and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Christopher M. Mullin served as a co-chair of Division J, Section 5 for the 2014 AERA annual meeting and is currently the assistant vice chancellor for policy and research at the State University System of Florida, Board of Governors. He is also the co-author of a newly published monograph Higher Education Finance Research: Policy, Politics, and Practice.

Johnstone, D. B. (1999). “Financing higher education: Who should pay?” In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdhal & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges (2nd ed.) (pp. 369-392). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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