Copyright © 1996 Association for the Study of Higher Education . All rights
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publishing model depends on mutual trust between user and publisher. The Review of Higher
Education 20.1 (1996) 5-13
Public Policy and Higher Education Research
Three summers ago, Jim Ratcliff and I set off from State College in the
early dawn of a beautiful July morning, headed for Pittsburgh to attend the higher
education-related portions of the annual meeting of the Education Commission of
the States (ECS). One of our goals was to learn more about the major issues with
which state and federal higher education policymakers and their staffs were wrestling. For
me, it was a Day of Revelation--the first conference I had attended in over twenty years
where I knew only a handful of the people. More disturbing, I
discovered that not only did I not know these people, I knew little about the issues they
discussed. Even their language was different: strange technical terms, opaque
acronyms, references to unfamiliar state and federal regulations, and references to
leading thinkers and writers with whom I was completely unfamiliar. The conference
attendees returned the favor: None of them knew me, with or without
my name tag. Nor did they know what sorts of things I study and write about. Never
in my 23-year professional life have I felt so isolated from the world of higher
education. [End Page 5]
I know the dangers of drawing conclusions from a sample of one, but I
don't believe I am alone in my isolation. Indeed, I have since wondered whether most of
the people at that ECS conference (or any other conference where state education
policymakers and their staffs gather) would feel the same sense of isolation that I felt
if they attended an ASHE meeting. Why should ASHE and ECS conference participants share so
little in common?
A decade ago, George Keller (1985) published an
article in Change entitled "Trees Without Fruit: The Problem with
Research about Higher Education." That provocative essay opened with the
statement: "It's peculiar but it's a fact: hardly
anyone in higher education pays attention to the research and scholarship about higher
education" (p. 7). According to Keller,
most of the research on higher education is preoccupied with methods; avoids education's
larger issues; neglects the educational policies, actions, and decisions that institutions
and legislatures must confront, and is written for other researchers rather than for
"those who must act" (p. 8).
P: Pascarella and Terenzini http://www.hi.is/~joner/eaps/wh_pasca.htm
Keller is not the only person to offer such a critique or to
call higher education scholars to the study of policy questions. Clif Conrad
(1989), in his 1988 ASHE presidential address, Patricia Crosson (1989), in her
vice-presidential address to the 1988 annual meeting of Division J (Postsecondary
Education) of the American Educational Research Association, and Michael Nettles (1995) in
his 1993 ASHE presidential address, have all urged higher education
researchers to become more involved in policy-relevant research.
I am the third ASHE president in six years to speak to this point. An entire issue of the
1986 volume of The Review of Higher Education, guest edited by David Leslie and
Joseph Beckham (1986), was devoted to an examination of the state of higher education
research. Frank Newman, President of the Education Commission of the States, has pointed
out: "In today's higher education research and its journals, the really urgent issues
facing higher education seldom get addressed" (qtd. in Keller, 1985, p. 7). And Dan
Layzell (1990), then Assistant Director for Fiscal Affairs at the Illinois Board of Higher
Education, in a 1990 "Opinion" column in the Chronicle of Higher Education,
asked: "Why should policymakers pay any attention to what researchers
are saying?" (italics his). Layzell is quick to add:
I do not ask this lightly or with disrespect for the scholarly endeavor. I say this
regretfully, from the perspective of one who has completed graduate training in higher
education and who helps formulate state policy affecting colleges and universities. Like
others, . . . I find myself having difficulty straddling the widening gulf between higher
education research and policy research (p. B1).
I know how my 19-year-old daughter would respond were I to describe
this history: Tapping the button switch in the cradle of an imaginary telephone with her
right hand while holding the thumb of her left hand to her ear and [End Page 6] her
pinky finger to her mouth to simulate a telephone handset, she would ask: "Like, hellll-O? Is this line working?!? I mean, is anybody out
What accounts for the gulf between higher education research and the
worlds of policy and practice? A number of explanations are offered, but the dominant and
most persuasive explanation is that we have come to think of the study of higher education
as one of the social science disciplines. I am not suggesting that the tools of the social
sciences cannot be used to advantage in the study of our colleges and universities. I am
suggesting that we have forgotten how to do that, that we have forgotten our roots. Higher
education as a field of study (and ASHE as an organization) developed out of the
application of certain of the social sciences to higher education problems. A small number
of psychologists, sociologists, historians, political scientists, economists, and
anthropologists shared a common interest in the improvement of the educational and
organizational effectiveness of America's higher education system. The study of higher
education was (and is) an applied field of study, not a social science discipline
in itself, and the difference is a significant one.
The shift in the conception of higher education as a field of study
from that of a multidisciplinary, applied field toward that of a traditional discipline is
neither new nor unique to higher education research. Nearly thirty years ago, Jencks and
Riesman (1968), in The Academic Revolution, noted the tendency of free-standing
professional schools to move away from their applied, action research roots toward more
scholarly activities once they had affiliated with a university.
We may have underestimated the power of the disciplines to control and
focus scholarly attention. The conception of higher education as a discipline requires the
rigorous application of research designs and analytical methods that are widely accepted
in the discipline. The concern with theory and fidelity to a set of methods (whether
quantitative or qualitative), in turn, leads to an examination of narrower, more precisely
defined topics and questions. It also promotes a tighter, more specialized language. The
cumulative effect of these tendencies is the placement of one's work within an established
discourse among a community of like-minded scholars with training and interests similar to
one's own. Such specialization and narrowness, however, also reduce or eliminate access to
that work by practitioners and policymakers who may be able to apply it to the solution of
I say again: As a profession, we have forgotten our roots. Instead, we
have become preoccupied with a singular conception of research. Boyer (1990) identified at
least four forms of scholarship: "the scholarship of discovery; the
scholarship of integration; the scholarship of application; and the
scholarship of teaching" (p. 16; italics his). Higher education researchers
have come to concentrate on the "scholarship of discovery," the pursuit of
knowledge [End Page 7] for its own sake and the commitment to contribute to the
storehouse of knowledge on a given topic. But to what end? Rediscovering our roots will
require a return to "the scholarship of application." According to Boyer, this
form of scholarly activity
moves toward engagement as the scholar asks, "How can knowledge be responsibly
applied to consequential problems?" . . . And further, "Can social problems themselves
define an agenda for scholarly investigation?" (p. 21; italics his).
The scholarship of application is synergistic, "theory and
practice vitally interact, and one renews the other" (p. 23). Oscar Handlin argues
that "scholarship has to prove its worth not on its own terms but by service to the
nation and the world" (qtd. in Boyer, 1990, p. 23).
It is the general tendency away from action, practice- and
policy-relevant research toward the more scholastic that should concern us if the research
we produce is not to become what Keller (1985) characterized as "a literature without
an audience" (p. 8). Reversing this trend and engaging in more practice- and
policy-oriented research is, I believe, both a professional responsibility and a
self-interested necessity. In the current financial climate, accountability driven as it
is, we cannot expect continued public support for research that does not serve public
needs. And no one I know is forecasting an early change in that climate.
So where do we begin? I have five suggestions:
1. We must recognize and accept the study of higher education for
what it is--a multidisciplinary, applied field. We must direct greater research
attention to issues confronting practitioners and policymakers. Our attention should be
given to sectors of the knowledge base that have two characteristics: First, they are (or
soon will be) vitally important areas of higher education policy or practice, and, second,
the available research in these areas is seriously deficient. The list of such issues is
lengthy and includes, among other topics, equality in educational and occupational choice
and attainment, fiscal and financial aid policies, rising tuitions and costs, educational
quality, administrative and learning productivity, restructuring, economic development,
and public accountability.
One of the more important of these empirical black holes concerns the
college experience and its consequences for such groups as first-generation students,
women in male-dominated fields, students of color, part-time students, adults and
returning students, and students from low-income families. These are our students of the
future. Currently, 45% of all undergraduates are enrolled part-time (up 34% from 1978).
From 1980 to 1990, the number of students 25 years of age or older grew 34%, and further
growth (by about 14%) is anticipated before the end of this century. Most of this growth
will be accounted for by persons ages 35 to 44 (NCES, 1994). [End Page 8]
Despite the clear demographic trends confronting our colleges and
universities, however, little research has been done on the educational outcomes for
nontraditional student groups. Only rarely do studies explore whether the effects of our
instructional and other educational interventions are equally effective (or ineffective)
for all students, or whether those effects vary according to a students' gender,
race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, or ability. Our curricula, instructional
methods, and out-of-class programs and activities all rest on the assumption that the
effects of college are general and not conditional. But we don't really know whether
that's the case or not.
Our community colleges constitute a second area that I believe requires
greater research attention. In many ways, it has been these institutions that have been
responsible for extending equal access to higher education and greater social mobility to
all Americans. Between 1978 and 1991, enrollments in four-year institutions grew by 23%.
In two-year institutions, they rose by 31%, and the number of two-year students is
expected to grow by another 11% before 2003 (NCES, 1992). Currently, these schools
constitute 28% of all colleges and universities in the country and enroll 37% of all our
students (Chronicle, 1995).
Despite the educational and social significance of community colleges,
however, the educational and administrative functioning and effectiveness of these
institutions remain largely unexamined. The dearth of research cuts across areas of study,
whether on students, faculty, or organizations. While the belief persists that community
colleges offer a less rigorous and effective education than four-year institutions, recent
evidence from the National Study of Student Learning, conducted by the National Center on
Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, indicates that there may be a relative
parity between two- and four-year institutions in their effects on students' cognitive
growth (Pascarella, Bohr, Nora, & Terenzini, 1995; Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn,
& Terenzini, 1996). This emerging evidence, however, amounts to a trickle at a time
when a torrent is needed. The fact and problem remain: Students beginning baccalaureate
degree study at a community college are 1518% less likely to complete that degree than
students enrolling at a four-year institution (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Why? We
don't really know. Why do we know so little about the educational and organizational
functioning and effectiveness of institutions that enroll nearly 4 in 10 of our students?
Why does only about 5% of our research on college effects focus on community colleges?
A third area to which I believe higher education researchers should
give greater attention is the instructional effectiveness of information technology in
general but of distance education in particular. The term covers an enormous expanse of
conceptual ground, encompassing widely varied instructional approaches and media ranging
from correspondence courses, to pre-produced instructional television programs, to audio
conferencing, [End Page 9] audiographic conferencing, computer conferencing, and
various forms of videoconferencing.
Many campus administrators and state and federal policymakers view
distance education as a highly promising solution to current problems relating to cost and
instructional productivity. Whether technology and distance education yield such gains in
instructional productivity, however, remains an open--but researchable--question.
According to Moore (1994), much of the available research is based on inadequate (usually
one-site) research designs and weak statistical methods, and is usually "unrelated to
any theoretical framework and [therefore] of limited generalizability" (p. 5).
Substantial work awaits us in examining the relation between technology and learning
outcomes and in ascertaining the costs of improving learning and extending it to
Distance education has practical and policy implications that go far
beyond the classroom. The dazzling promise of technology appears to have blinded us to a
wide range of questions relating to faculty, the curriculum, administrative and financial
matters, and student and faculty support systems. And then there are social equity
questions. To what extent do technological and instructional advances carry a cultural or
socioeconomic bias against those individuals and institutions in our society with little
or no access to computers and educationally related telecommunications? The answer right
now is: "We don't know."
Individual campuses and entire state systems are moving quickly into
this brave, new, expensive, educational world and others are queuing up behind them. If
colleges and universities are to invest wisely in distance education and other
instructional technologies, and if we are to understand how distance education is
reshaping the teaching and learning environment, research is needed in a wide variety of
Bringing our research to bear on some of the black holes of our
knowledge base, however, is only part of the challenge in striking a new balance in our
research between theory, on the one hand, and practical and policy relevance on the other.
Attitudes, values, reward systems, and even philosophies will also have to change, which
leads to my second recommendation.
2. We must reconsider why we do research and write. Do we write
for publication and, thereby, enhanced prospects for promotion and tenure? Or do we write
to make a difference in the lives of others? That is not a dichotomous choice, of course,
but the overlap at present is, I suspect, far smaller than it might be. Most of us study
the topics we do because we are interested in them and believe they are important to
others, although we are often vague--even in our own minds--about who those
"others" are and why they might be interested in our work. Rediscovering our
roots will mean confronting some potentially painful questions: How will answers to the
questions I pose contribute to a better understanding of one or more of the [End Page
10] important problems confronting higher education and our country? Why are these
questions important? Will the focus and design of the research serve practical and policy
purposes or only theoretical ones? Redressing the balance will also necessitate greater
intellectual effort than we now require of ourselves in clearly identifying and
explicating the implications of our findings for practice and policy, as well as for
3. We must reconsider the audiences for whom we write. Not
everyone will be good at doing policy-relevant research, of course, and it is probably
unreasonable to expect policy relevance in every piece of research. Some studies should
be written for other researchers. But doing so is a slippery slope. It is far easier to
write for an audience we know than one we do not. The problem is that, for most of us, the
audience we know best includes primarily our scholarly colleagues, particularly those
interested in the same topical areas as we. The people for whom I have written most were
not those attending that Pittsburgh ECS meeting. I have always hoped that policymakers
would benefit from my work; but until recently, I have never fully thought through how I
expected them to learn of (or from) my findings. The journals in which I have published
are not those which policymakers read, and I am not alone in this practice. As the
philosopher possum, Pogo, has said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Increasing the relevance of our research for practice and policy will
mean establishing closer and more frequent contacts with practitioners and policymakers
and their staffs. It will mean opening two-way lines of communication between researchers
and practitioners and policymakers. It will mean adopting prose styles that avoid jargon
and dense technical explanations. (Writing clearly and forcefully about research, by the
way, does not mean "dumbing down" one's work.) It will mean reading the
publications policymakers read. It will mean occasionally attending and contributing to
the conferences they attend. It will mean doing readable, practice- or policy-focused
literature reviews (and I hasten to add that these are as vitally important to
practitioners and policymakers as they are intellectually challenging to do!). It will
mean writing for different publications. Outlets such as Change, the Chronicle
of Higher Education, the AAHE Bulletin, and the Educational Record, as
well as the publications of such organizations as ECS, other interstate compacts, and the
National Conference of State Legislatures, reach very different (and larger) audiences
than most research journals.
4. We must review our graduate programs. Graduate programs not
only prepare students to become higher education administrators or researchers, but they
also serve as powerful socializing agents. Graduate students learn about more things than
the history, curriculum, students, organization, administration, and research methods of
higher education from their faculty guides. They learn--and in many cases
internalize--their mentors' intellectual orientations, value systems, criteria, and
standards about what [End Page 11] constitute appropriate topics and good research.
What we are teaching them may not be conducive to the development of their awareness of
policy issues. In five of the last six years, for example, more than half to two-thirds of
the graduate students participating in the graduate student policy seminar offered as part
of the ASHE annual conference indicated that they had had little or no exposure to state
policy issues in their doctoral programs.
Students preparing to become researchers should, as part of their
graduate programs, be exposed to the major policy issues and the tools available to study
them. Courses outside colleges of education in such areas as policy analysis, economics,
and public administration should be required to broaden students' perspectives and skills
for doing policy-relevant research. Failure to expose graduate students to important state
policy questions and their analysis will only perpetuate (if not exacerbate) the current
gulf between higher education research and public higher education policy.
5. Finally, we must search for ways in which ASHE can promote and
support policy-related research. Following the 1993 ASHE meeting in Pittsburgh, the ASHE
Newsletter carried an announcement that a group was forming to discuss policy issues
and research in higher education and invited interested persons to join. When I called the
individual identified in the notice to find out about the group's progress, I learned that
the effort had already died on the vine. I'm told that a group interested in research in
community colleges suffered a similar fate. I encourage my successors, and all ASHE
members, to join me in finding ways in which we can both encourage and support research
that has promise for benefiting practitioners and policymakers.
The challenges of returning to and honoring our roots as a
multidisciplinary, applied field of study are substantial, but they have been before us
for at least a decade. It is time to do something about it. It will be well for us to
remember a comment by John Gardner, the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare (which I paraphrase): "In a society that disparages its
plumbers and honors its philosophers, neither the pipes nor the theories will hold
water." I earnestly hope that the day is not too far off when more of us can walk
into an ECS meeting and know the issues with which the policymakers and legislative staff
members in attendance are wrestling. I also hope that those policymakers and their staff
members will know more of us because our research has helped them solve some of those
Patrick T. Terenzini is
Professor and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, The
Pennsylvania State University, University Park. This essay was initially delivered as the
presidential address at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher
Education, 3 November 1995, Orlando, Florida.
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