- Policy and Performance in American Higher Education: An Examination of Cases across State Systems
Richardson and Martinez seek to identify the rules and policies that help state higher education systems improve or worsen performance. Such a task is daunting. We have little agreement on how to measure the performance of a state's higher education system, and even when outcomes are easy to measure, identifying the determinants of strong performance is a difficult undertaking. While the authors do not overcome these challenges and meet their ambitious objective, they produce much of value in the meantime.
Past examinations of higher education governance systems and policies typically provide basic information about all 50 states or detailed accounts of an individual state. By providing thorough descriptions of five states, Richardson and Martinez allow the reader to compare state systems while still contemplating the numerous complexities that determine the character of each system. The five states chosen complement each other well. South Dakota and New Mexico effectively represent the spectrum of less populated states as the heavy centralization [End Page 550]in the former is a good contrast to the low levels of planning and coordination in the latter. The two most populous states chosen, California and New York, also contain interesting differences. The famous 1960 California Master Plan created three separate systems which allowed multiple universities within the University of California system to become renowned research universities. In contrast, the separate systems within New York were organized by region rather than function, which lead to less differentiation across institutions. The final state, New Jersey, provides another helpful perspective because it underwent substantial reform in 1994, which allows for interesting comparisons over time.
Any researcher seeking to describe the governance system of an individual state with only a few simple measures should be humbled by the rich descriptions that Richardson and Martinez provide for each state system. The authors effectively portray the complexity present in each state by describing the numerous actors that help shape policies and rules. They then describe the rules for a wide range of activities including planning, budgeting, personnel, data collection, program review, student assistance, and research and development. The complexity of their work allowed them to create 58 rules to formally describe the governance system in each state. Previous work usually employed only a few variables to accomplish this task, so Richardson and Martinez are drastically advancing the literature in this regard.
If the goal of this book was to describe the governance systems for individual states, this review would be almost entirely positive. But the authors set their sights quite high and attempt to link these rules to the performance of each state system of higher education. To accomplish such a task, each state's performance level must be examined with the same level of scrutiny as the authors devoted to the governance system. The examination of performance, however, simply relied on aggregate statistics that measured the graduation rates and test scores for the K–12 system and enrollment rates and persistence rates for the higher education system. The demographics of a state's citizens and the quality of the state's K–12 schools likely influence these measures as much as, if not more than, the state's higher education system. The impact of this point can be demonstrated by the case of New Mexico, which is less wealthy than the other four states in the study. The authors deemed New Mexico to be the worst performing higher education system in the study, because their scores for the chosen performance indicators were the lowest. But even if New Mexico's higher education system was performing in an exemplary fashion, one would not expect them to overtake New York or New Jersey for these indicators given the other differences across states.
The method used to connect policy rules to performance indicators is also problematic in that it only utilized five state-level observations but relied upon...