Accountability, Affordability, Access:
A Review of the Recent Trends in
Higher Education Policy Research

Thaddieus W. Conner and Thomas M. Rabovsky

The following research note surveys the most recent literature published in the past two years on higher education policy and politics in the United States. We identify three prominent themes in the literature including research on accountability, affordability, and issues concerning access and equity. We observe that there has been increased attention paid to theories of politics by those who study higher education, which has played a vital role in pushing the boundaries of education research to help begin answering many of the field’s most complex and multi-dimensional questions. This theoretical development has allowed education policy scholars to better understand why various policies are adopted, how they change over time, which groups benefit, and how institutions are affected by changes in the economic and political landscape.


At the beginning of the last decade, Donald Heller (2001a) identified three major challenges that would face higher education in the years to come: Affordability, Access, and Accountability (Heller, 2001a). Two years later, Micheal McLendon issued an ambitious call for research that focused on what is commonly referred to as the “politics of higher education” with an emphasis on the connection between state policy and processes and education outcomes in higher education (McLendon, 2003). McLendon lamented the “underdevelopment” of literature focused on the politics of higher education that was in dire need of methodological, conceptual, and topical multidimensionality and strong theoretical development. Since that time, there have been numerous scholars who responded to McLendon’s call for analytical rigor and theoretical development, and they have been overwhelmingly focused on the substantive issues that Heller cited nearly a decade ago.

The following research note attempts to survey the most recent literature published in the past two years on higher education policy and politics in the United States.1 Issues related to accountability and governance structures have risen to the forefront in recent years, and a growing literature that focuses on theories of political responsibility and bureaucratic discretion has developed to try and understand the implications that new performance-oriented policy reforms have for public universities. Closely related to this topic is a body of literature that focuses on questions relating to state budgets and university finance to explore the relationship between state governments and institutional support. Another grouping of articles takes up the issue of need-based versus merit-based aid, with a particular focus on understanding why states and institutions favor one approach over the other, and the implications that such choices have on student populations. Finally, a collection of articles focuses on issues related to diversity and student achievement for traditionally underrepresented groups, and the impact that state political interventions into race-concious admission policies have on institutions and minority student access. We conclude the essay with a discussion of where the research on higher education policy appears to be heading and areas for possible future research that are in need of further development.

Governance and Accountability

Over the last fifteen years, the performance of American public colleges and universities has become a topic of great concern. The most recently available statistics indicate that the average public four-year institution graduates less than 60 percent of its students within six years (and many schools do considerably worse than that, particularly with respect to racial minorities) (Schneider, 2008). As a result, a number of observers have raised concerns about the ability of US institutions of higher learning to adequately respond to societal needs for a highly-trained labor force, and to advance goals of economic opportunity and racial progress (Bowen, Chingos, McPherson, & Tobin, 2009; Hess, Schneider, Kelly, & Carey, 2009; Schneider, 2008; US Department of Education, 2006). These concerns have been compounded by skyrocketing costs of college tuition, which threaten to push college completion beyond the reach of many Americans (Fossey & Bateman, 1998; Heller, 2001b; Mumper, 2003; St. John, Paulsen, & Carter, 2005; Titus, 2006a). As a result, state policymakers have spent considerable energy seeking solutions that will improve both the performance and cost-effectiveness of public institutions.

Performance funding policies, which directly link institutional funding to the achievement of objective benchmarks, seek to re-cast the relationship between public universities and their political agents by providing incentives for improved performance and sanctions for poor student outcomes, and have received considerable attention from scholars during the past decade and a half (Alexander, 2000; Burke, 2002, 2005; Burke & Minassians, 2003; Herbst, 2007; Layzell, 1999; McLendon, Hearn, & Deaton, 2006; Serban & Burke, 1998; Zumeta, 2001). Central to this movement has been a serious debate about the proper balance between institutional autonomy and public accountability (Alexander, 2000; Dunn, 2003; Huisman & Currie, 2004; Lane, 2007).

Although research on performance funding policies and the accountability movement has lessened over the last two years as compared to the early part of the decade, there have been several works that have furthered scholarship in this area. Building on previous work by McLendon, Heller, and Young (2005), Leslie and Berdahl (2008) explore the case of higher education reform in Virginia, where several flagship universities sought to convert from public institutions to chartered universities that would receive less financial support from the state in exchange for greater autonomy and discretion. They find that reform advocates “misestimated” (Leslie & Berdahl, 2008, p. 309) the ability of the political system in Virginia to process such a radical change, and that as a result, the state ended up adopting an accountability policy quite different than that which reformers initially anticipated. The primary conclusion they draw is that reform advocates face a difficult decision between pushing for incremental versus radical reform, and that failure to adequately assess the political situation can result in unpredictable policy change with potentially undesirable components.

Like Leslie and Berdahl (2008), much of the scholarship on accountability and governance reforms has tended to focus on understanding the policy process that resulted in change (McLendon & Ness, 2003; McLendon et al., 2006, 2005), rather than the effects these policies have on institutions. In terms of understanding policy impacts, much of the early scholarship was based on case study analysis and qualitative work (Burke, 2002, 2005; Serban & Burke, 1998; Zumeta, 2001). Volkwein and Tandberg (2008) conducted a quantitative study of accountability policies and governance reforms to determine whether they resulted in any significant improvements in performance. Using a cross-sectional dataset that ranged from 2000 to 2006, they are able to control for a variety of state contexts to isolate the effect of accountability and governance reforms on state Measuring Up scores. They find no relationship between stronger accountability policies and better performance, which suggests that, to this point, the accountability movement, at least in the form of performance funding policies, has largely failed to achieve any real improvement in student outcomes.

One component in building accountability mechanisms revolves around the construction of student unit record systems (SURS), which track students from K-12 all the way through college completion. Some observers have argued that these systems, and the data they collect, should play a central role in accountability regimes for both K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning, and have thus urged states to invest more heavily in building SURS (Bailey, 2006; Ewell, 2007; US Department of Education, 2006). Hearn, McLendon, and Mokher (2008) use event history analysis to understand why some states have constructed these costly data systems while others have not, and find that adoption was predicted by a combination of state demographic variables and state political ideology. They claim that those interested in pushing for increased investment in SURS would be well served to consider strategies that will mobilize liberal bases of political support, and that will effectively dissuade concerns about potential threats to student privacy (Hearn et al.).

Another area within the accountability discussion that has received little attention until recently has been the role that trustees and governing board members play in helping to align campus policies with state priorities. While previous research has explored variation in governance arrangements and their impacts on institutional performance in great detail (Hearn & Griswold, 1994; Knott & Payne, 2004; Lowry, 2001a; Marcus, 1997; McGuinness, 2003; McLendon, Deaton, & Hearn, 2007; McLendon & Ness, 2003; McLendon et al., 2005) little work has considered the role that differences in governing board members might have on higher education outcomes.

Minor (2008) finds that states have tremendous variation, not only in the arrangement of university governance institutions, but also in the manner that members are selected to serve on these bodies. He contends that trustees can be a critically important resource to aid campus leaders as they seek to respond to both market forces and demands from political leaders, and that as a result, processes which lead to the selection of more effective trustees should, in theory, improve the performance of institutions of higher learning. While the research on this topic currently lacks sophisticated statistical tests, Minor finds preliminary evidence that states which have more rigorous processes for selecting trustees experience better higher education performance.

Finally, Richardson and Martinez (2009) employ an institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework to better understand how state governance structures, political actors, and policy decisions (rules) are related to performance in higher education. Drawing on qualitative data collected from intensive case studies in five states (New Mexico, California, South Dakota, New Jersey, and New York), they find that states can positively influence outcomes by allocating higher levels of appropriations for K-12 and higher education, centralizing coordination and planning activities, incorporating private universities as part of state-wide initiatives, and by funding and implementing need-based financial aid programs.

While scholars have begun to make serious headway in understanding and explaining these new accountability policies and governance arrangements, there is still considerable work to be done. Relatively little scholarship has systematically explored the expectations that state policymakers have about performance based accountability regimes, or the ways that campus leaders have responded. Thus, we have a basic understanding about the macro-level forces that have pushed states towards adoption, and about general patterns related to their effectiveness, but a much more limited base of knowledge related to the causal mechanisms that result in the success or failure of these policies. As scholars continue to be interested in the power relationships that drive higher education policy and institutional performance, issues related to both accountability and finance are likely to remain central to the field. It is this second topic that we now turn our attention towards.

State Finance of Higher Education

Finance was a hot topic for scholarship during the early part of the decade, and continues to be an area of intense research within the higher education community. As state governments have faced increasing pressures to fund competing programs, like Medicaid, and have endured difficult recessions that saw dramatic declines in state revenues, they are increasingly finding it difficult to maintain support levels for public institutions of higher learning (Doyle & Delaney, 2009; Kane, Orzag, Apostolov, Inman, & Reschovsky, 2005; Rizzo, 2004). At the same time, colleges and universities have experienced tremendous increases in operating costs, which has led to a growing need for other streams of revenue, such as private donations, competitive research grants, and increased student tuition (Archibald & Feldman, 2008; Harter, Wade, & Watkins, 2005; Hearn, 2006; Mumper, 2001; Weisbrod, Ballou, & Asch, 2008). These changes have resulted in considerable efforts by researchers to understand the political factors that affect higher education spending and to discern the impacts that this new fiscal environment has had on institutions and student outcomes.

Prior to the last decade, only a few studies attempted to explain higher education funding policy, and they generally tended to either ignore or downplay the importance of political variables and explanations. However, there have recently been a number of works that have begun to focus on the importance of politics in shaping appropriations decisions (Archibald & FeldmanFeldman, 2006; Doyle, 2007; Lowry, 2001b; Nicholson-Crotty & Meier, 2003; Rizzo, 2004; Tandberg, 2006). Furthermore, during the last two years, a series of articles have built on this literature to integrate theories from public policy and political science into an understanding on higher education funding (Dar, 2010; Dar & Spence, 2010; McLendon, Mokher, & Doyle, 2009; Trostel & Ronca, 2009). For instance, McLendon, Hearn, and Mokher (2009) and Tandberg (2010, 2009) each focus heavily on the role that interest groups, institutional arrangements (such as term limits and gubernatorial power), and partisanship play in influencing the amount of money that states appropriate to higher education. All three articles find strong evidence that funding for higher education increases in the presence of a weaker governor, a larger percentage of Democratic control in the legislature, and as the number of higher education interest groups increase relative to other lobby groups in the state. Surprisingly, they also find a positive relationship between term limits and higher education support, which suggests the need for further research to explore the role that legislative experience plays in shaping principal-agent relationships between the state legislators and public universities (McLendon et al., 2009).

As state appropriations continue to decline relative to other sources of revenue, questions surrounding the potential implications of privatization in higher education have emerged as a central theme. Organizational scholars have long wrestled to understand how (and if) public and private organizations differ from one another along important dimensions such as efficiency and equity (Boyne, 2002; Bozeman, 1987; Bozeman & Bretschneider, 1994; Niskanen, 1971), and as public support for higher education decreases relative to private streams, these concerns have been raised with regards higher education in the United States. In particular, many have argued that public support for higher education is vital to increase access, improve equity, and promote social progress (Heller, 2001b; Mumper, 2003; Ryan, 2004; Titus, 2006a). In an edited volume by Morphew and Eckel (2009), a collection of scholars approach the issue of privatization in higher education from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including education, political science, economics, and organizations. Together, their works address a number of important questions regarding the extent to which privatization has occurred over the last decade and the impacts that continuing trends of privatization are likely to have on students, faculty, university administrators, and state policy makers in America during the decades to come.

Cheslock and Gianneschi (2008) take up the issue of decreasing state appropriations and the role that private donations play in compensating for lost revenue and rely on an economics perspective to understand the implication that this shift towards increased reliance on private donations is likely to have on equality of resources across institutions. If private donors are largely motivated to give by things that selective institutions are better positioned to provide (like naming rights and research breakthroughs), then private donations will disproportionately go to a small concentration of elite universities. They find compelling evidence that this is indeed the case, which suggests that the recent trend in declining state support will have differential impacts across institutional types and missions, and that less selective institutions will struggle to maintain current levels of quality. Because less selective institutions often play a vital role in providing access to traditionally underrepresented groups, these findings have serious implications for questions concerning equity within higher education.

Scholars have long been concerned about potentially negative impacts on student outcomes that result from lessened state support for public colleges and universities (Ryan, 2004; Scott, Bailey, & Kienzl, 2006; Titus, 2006a). Zhang (2009) continues this line of scholarship by investigating whether decreases in state appropriations are associated with declines in six-year graduation rates. He presents impressive quantitative analysis which indicates that increased state funding has positive impacts on institutional performance, and that these findings hold across institution types and funding environments. Additionally, Jaeger and Eagan (2010) show that greater reliance on contingent faculty, which many institutions are turning to as a cost saving mechanism, has negative impacts on student outcomes.

Given the volatile nature of the current spending environment across several states, the importance of state finance policies in higher education will continue to be a point of much debate. If decreasing state support is indeed a cold reality that public universities will need to adjust to in the coming years, then there are serious questions about the implications such trends have for student achievement. As state governments continue to push for heightened accountability and improved performance, future scholarship will need to continue to explore institutional responses to these competing pressures.

There remain several important questions that strike at the core of the higher education community, and which will likely continue to be central in future discussions regarding both finance and governance. To what extent should higher education be conceived of as a public good that ought to be subsidized by taxpayers? To what extent should market forces prevail, such that institutions are forced to compete for resources, and students, who obtain significant private benefits as a result of their education, bear the primary cost of attendance? What is the optimal balance between efficiency and affordability versus quality, and how should society balance these concerns against long-standing attempts to maintain and increase access? Closely related to these questions is another aspect of the financing debate that centers on various state policies towards the provision of financial aid, and whether public assistance should be awarded primarily based on need or on merit, which this is the topic of our next section.

The Politics of Aid and the Issue of Merit

The debate concerning the use of merit aid versus need-based aid policies has been prolific in the higher education literature and continues to be an important point of discussion in more recent studies (Dowd & Coury, 2006; Doyle, 2006; Heller, 1999). Over the past generation, state policies toward financial aid have shifted from direct grants to student loans and eventually from income-based aid to merit-based aid (Tierney & Venegas, 2009; Toutkoushian & Shafiq, 2010). Merit-based financial aid became popular beginning in the early 1990s as a mechanism to award aid based upon the “merits” or qualifications of the student, rather than their financial need (Ness, 2008). Such policies are designed to combat the “brain drain” effect within states, reduce student out-migration, reward high achieving students, and stimulate academic capital across states (Heller, 2002; Zhang & Ness, 2010).

At the heart of the debate is the fate of low-income and economically disadvantaged populations that typically need financial support to attend public colleges and universities. Proponents of merit aid policies argue that such financial incentives will motivate students of all backgrounds to perform at higher levels and reward students for exceptional work, while opponents suggest that students from less fortunate backgrounds, who are generally less likely to qualify based on merit criteria, will be disproportionately denied access by such policies (Hoxby, 2004; Luna, 2006; St. John, 2006). Previous research has concluded that various types of financial aid do in fact improve enrollments, especially among less advantaged populations, and that access to financial assistance can help offset the negative effects of tuition increases and “sticker shock” on college enrollment (Dowd & Coury, 2006; Gladieux, 2004; Heller & Marin, 2002; McPherson & Schapiro, 1998).

A series of studies have explored the spread of education policies such as merit aid across states using theories of diffusion and innovation. Previous research on innovation and diffusion in education suggest somewhat mixed results, with studies on the spread of education policies such as school choice reform showing very little regional trends (Mintrom, 1997; Mintrom & Vergari, 1998; Wong & Shen, 2002). McLendon et al. (2005), however, found a strong pattern of the adoption of postsecondary finance reform in one state and the “spread” of such policies to neighboring states within the first three to five years afterwards. Building upon this previous body of work, Cohen-Vogel, Ingle, Levine, and Spence (2008) looks at the migration of merit aid policies across the American states. Cohen-Vogel et al.’s work is unique, however, to the study of diffusion in that the authors utilize in-depth qualitative interviews with state policymakers to explore what led them to adopt merit aid policies in the first place. The authors find limited support for state-by-state diffusion, but do find evidence to suggest the vital role played by policy communities and professional associations that facilitate the spread of ideas, as well as the importance of competition between neighboring states for student enrollment, revenues, and overall academic achievement and rankings. Thus, many state policymakers within the realm of education policy are seeking to not only “keep up” with other states, but also to engage in a sharing of ideas and best practices through regional and national associations that transcend purely regional explanations of diffusion.

Additional research conducted in the past two years has further explored merit aid policies within the context of state policy processes. In what is easily the most in-depth look at the origin of broad-based merit-aid programs to date, Erik Ness (2008) explores the way that state policymakers choose eligibility criteria for merit aid awards in three states including New Mexico, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Ness uses several policy process theories including advocacy coalition, multiple streams, and electoral connection frameworks as a theoretical lens through which to explore the process of merit aid criteria selection. Ness’s work reveals the powerful and influential role that policy entrepreneurs played in the adoption of merit aid, and illustrates the contentious nature of debates regarding eligibility criteria that can have dramatic impacts in determining “winners” and “losers.” In a later work, Ness (2010) compares the explanatory power of these three conceptual frameworks—advocacy coalition, multiple streams, and electoral incentives—to understand the policy process of merit aid criteria selection, and finds the multiple streams perspective to provide the best explanation of state selection processes, with policy entrepreneurs and the presense of policy windows playing a crucial role in adoption.

Along similar lines, Ness and Mistretta (2009) look at two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, that demonstrate divergent paths in regards to the adoption of merit-based scholarship programs with the former choosing to adopt a state lottery without allocating proceeds to support merit aid programs while the latter chose to bolster non-need aid programs with state lottery revenues. The authors’ qualitative analysis of the events that transpired during the adoption of such policies reveals the importance of policy advocates in the policy process, the importance of intrastate characteristics, and the timeliness of events. For instance, at the time, North Carolina did not face the same “brain drain” problems that Tennessee policymakers were focused on correcting. As a result, North Carolina lawmakers chose to invest lottery revenues heavily in K-12 education, rather than in a merit-based scholarship program.

In addition to studying the adoption of merit-aid as a way to test theories of the policy process, several studies have focused on the impacts that merit aid policies have on a number of state, institutional, and individual outcomes (Dee & Jackson, 1999; Dynarski, 2004; Heller & Marin, 2002; Ness & Tucker, 2008). Orsuwan and Heck (2009) examine student migration patterns over a ten-year period to determine the effect that merit aid policies have on state postsecondary enrollments when coupled with prepaid tuition plans. Using time series analysis, the authors find that merit aid policies are typically successful at incentivizing students to attend in-state schools in hopes of receiving a merit aid scholarship. Further, they observe an additional decrease in the out-migration of students in states offering both merit aid policies and prepaid tuition plans, suggesting the importance of such incentives in mediating enrollments and preventing talented students from leaving the state. Zhang and Ness (2010) observe a similar pattern with merit aid states experiencing both growth in first year and resident enrollments, but with noticeable differences in impacts across states based upon certain characteristics of the merit aid programs in question.

Titus (2009) looks at the impact of various state financial aid policies on the production of bachelor degrees using state level data from 1992 to 2004. His findings reveal that as the amount of state need-based aid increases, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees generated rises as well, suggesting the ability of this particular type of aid to offset the rising costs of attending a public postsecondary institution within the state. Perhaps more interesting is that Titus (2009) finds no statistical relationship between non-need aid, or merit aid, and the production of bachelor degrees within the state, which is surprising considering the investments that many states across the country make in this particular form of financial assistance with the hopes of improving student performance.

Other studies have looked at how various types of state financial aid policies in higher education impact individual postsecondary institutions. For instance, Doyle, Delaney, and Naughton (2009) investigates whether or not the distribution of state financial aid has an effect on how institutions themselves distribute types of aid to students. More specifically, the authors are interested in determining whether institutions respond to changes in state financial aid policy by “complying” and offering similar aid, such as if the state favors aid based on need and postsecondary institu- tions followed suit, or if public colleges and universities “compensate” by offering more merit-based aid in states that favor need. Doyle et al. (p. 521) find evidence to suggest that “state policy appear[s] to play a significant and substantive role in the relationship between need, merit, and institutional aid,” with institutional aid being positively associated with academic excellence in states with large need-based policies, while aid in states with large merit-based policies showing a positive relationship with the income level of the student.

Similarly, a later study by Doyle (2010) explores whether or not the adoption of merit-based aid policies within a state essentially “crowds out” or lowers the amount of need-based aid as a “second order” effect. Using Baumgartner and Jones’ (1993) theory of punctuated equilibrium, and Lindblom’s (1959) incrementalism, he finds that there is little difference in the level of need-based aid in a state following the adoption of merit-based aid policies over the course of several years. However, Doyle (2010) does find evidence to suggest that change in the amount of need-based aid, or any state financial aid for that matter, occurs gradually and incrementally over time, with amounts in the previous year proving to be the best predictor of need-based aid levels overall. This implies that while states have been quick to invest heavily in alternative aid policies such as merit, they have done so with little noticeable impacts on existing policies.

The last two years of scholarship in this area reveal several interesting aspects of state policies toward financial aid that are important to both scholars and policymakers. First, while the spread of merit aid policies has been exponential, these new state policies have not necessarily crowded out other forms of aid, but have in fact impacted the type of aid distributed by institutions. Second, the spread of aid policies have not followed traditional patterns of policy diffusion, as scholars have instead found evidence that is suggestive of a more complex process that involves learning communities, professional associations, and interstate competition. Finally, recent studies have shined light on the critically important role that aid policies can have for student access and success in higher education. Furthermore, these policies have serious implications for the ability of state governments to address inequities and provide opportunities for society’s most disadvantaged members, which is the subject of our final section.

Equity and Diversity in Higher Education

A fourth major substantive area of the literature has explored issues concerning equity and diversity in higher education. Equity has been a term loosely used in the education literature that can take on a number of meanings, including the fair distribution of resources in society, improvements in access to higher education among historically under-represented groups, and the pursuit of specific policy goals designed to right past wrongs. DesJardins (2003) identifies two broad types of equity in higher education that provides a useful conceptual framework including vertical equity—which refers to the unequal treatment of unequal groups such as policies designed to improve access to higher education among students of disadvantaged backgrounds—and intergenerational equity—the distribution of resources to ensure equity across generations (also referred to as mobility). While this distinction can be useful analytically, it is important to remember that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and that they are often times complimentary. For instance, many policies which are aimed at increasing vertical equity, such as those which seek to increase access for low-income or minority populations can also have a positive impact on intergenerational equity, and vice-versa.

Reports within the past two years have called attention to substantial race and gender disparities in student access and success in the higher education system (Carey, 2008; Engle & Theokas, 2010a, 2010b). As of 2006, rates of college enrollment among African American, Latina/o, and American Indian students continued to lag behind their Anglo counterparts by as much as 18 percent (Horn & Carroll, 2006). Furthermore, although enrollments in public 4-year universities have increased by as much as 11 percent for historically disadvantaged groups from 1975–2001, fewer than 46 percent of minority students completed a college degree within six years compared to 64 percent of whites (Carey, 2008). Additionally, much of the reported increase in college enrollment among students of color has been in less selective, open enrollment institutions which often have alarmingly low rates of retention and graduation, while African American enrollments in the most selective institutions, where student outcomes are often much more positive, has actually declined in recent years (Melguizo, 2008).

In addition to explaining the impacts of state policies on access and performance a number of scholars have attempted to understand institutional factors that influence student outcomes (Horn & Carroll, 2006; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Pascarella, Smart, Ethington, & Nettles, 1987). A recent national report by Carey (2008) titled Graduation Watch:Making Minority Student Success a Priority looked at fluctuations in the achievement gap between African American and white students at comparable institutions from 2001 to 2006. Carey found substantial differences across peer institutions with some colleges demonstrating marked success in closing the graduation gap between black and white students, and in some cases even reversing it. In many instances, more selective institutions were found to have the smallest differences between African American and white graduation rates, suggesting not only the quality of resources at these schools, but more importantly, the caliber of students self-selecting into such universities.

Recent work on the importance of institutional factors on minority student success has also explored the relationship between campus climate and degree completion (Museus, Nichols, & Lambert, 2008). Building off a long line of qualitative research, Museus et al. conducted a national study of campus climate across the United States and observed notable differences in degree completion across racial groups with African American students demonstrating the most sensitivity to unfavorable campus environments. However, effects of campus climate are not particular to only African American students, and the authors find Latina/o and Asian students having only a slightly higher tolerance for negative academic environments.

Whether the result of state or institutional factors, these gross disparities in student outcomes that continue to persist have far reaching implications for both vertical and intergenerational inequity (DesJardins, 2003; Hoxby, 2004; Pennington, 2004; Zhang, 2008). Some reports suggest that college graduates earn on average almost a million dollars more from the beginning and end of their careers than those with a high school diploma (Pennington, 2004). However, a study by Zhang (2008) reveals persisting gaps in earnings among gender and racial groups that is partially attributable to an underrepresentation of females and minority students in high paying majors such as engineering and sciences, as well as an underrepresentation of students of color in more selective universities. Practitioners and scholars alike argue that such trends have much larger implications in regards to addressing serious economic disparities in our society that have persisted for generations (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Hoxby, 2004).

Some postsecondary institutions have sought controversial race-conscious solutions to improving postsecondary enrollment and success among low income and historically under-represented groups in public colleges and universities as a tactic to address vertical inequity (Hicklin, 2007; Long & Tienda, 2008). Researchers at the end of the last decade explored the effectiveness of such affirmative action policies in attracting a more diverse student body, especially in more selective institutions, and the benefits of diversity that pass down to all individuals and students in such multi-racial climates (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Hurtado & Cade, 2001). More recent work has evaluated the impact of state and federal interventions on the behavior of universities and student enrollment patterns that have revealed important interactions between political and bureaucratic institutions. Such interventions constrain the ability of public colleges and universities to address issues of unequal access in higher education, and to assemble a more diverse student body through race-conscious admission policies (Hicklin, 2007; Park, 2009).

Hicklin (2007) explored how the intervention of Hopwood, Bakke, and the Michigan cases impacted minority student enrollment across states affected by such restrictions using data from 1990 to 2000. She finds that political interventions into race sensitive admission policies have had varying effects on minority student enrollment in public colleges and universities depending on the competitiveness of the institution and several other intervening characteristics. Rather than decrease the total number of enrolled minority students in the affected state’s postsecondary institutions, these restrictive policies merely “redistribute” students of color from more selective universities to less selective ones (Hicklin, 2007). Such second order effects can have consequences for both the achievement of vertical equity and intergenerational equity as the number of minority students in more competitive colleges and universities begins to decline.

Furthermore, Long and Tienda (2008) investigated changes in university admissions policies in Texas after the controversial Hopwood decision and found that direct advantages previously extended to students of color in enrollment decisions completely disappear following the controversial ruling, and worse, actually become disadvantages. Furthermore, the authors find that minority enrollments at these institutions never returned to “pre-Hopwood” levels thus suggesting the power of judicial and legislative interventions into university policies.

A substantial area of the literature on diversity over the last two years has also focused on the impact of particular state political characteristics on minority student enrollments in state colleges and universities. Theories of descriptive and substantive representation in both political and bureaucratic institutions has shed considerable light on the driving forces behind improving outcomes for underrepresented groups in the education system (Hicklin & Meier, 2008). Traditionally, studies have focused either on how the type of policy passed is influenced by changes in minority representation (e.g., Bratton & Haynie, 1999), or how representation effects the outcomes of policy (Meier & Stewart, 1991). Hicklin and Meier (2008) explore a confluence of political and bureaucratic factors that influence African American and Latina/o enrollments in public colleges and universities including representation in the legislature, structure of the bureaucracy, and the policies passed that restrict affirmative action. The authors find a positive relationship between Latina/o and black representation in the legislature and increases in minority student enrollment, but that this effect is conditioned by the structure of the chief bureaucratic agency governing public higher education in the state. For instance, the effects of representation on enrollments were greatly diminished in states with highly centralized governing boards, which tend to enjoy greater autonomy from legislative mandates, and enhanced in states with more decentralized higher education governance systems, which tend to be more sensitve to the will of state policymakers. Similar relationships have been observed in regards to how political and administrative forces influence minority student graduation rates as well (Hicklin & Meier, 2008).

In a related vein, Chen and DesJardins (2008) observe differential impacts of financial aid policies across levels of income on the risk of dropout behavior among college students. The authors find that the dropout gap between students of low income backgrounds and middle income backgrounds is narrowed to a greater extent by the availability of Pell grants, while student loans and work study have similar effects across all groups. Furthermore, Ness and Tucker (2008) observe differences in the perceived impact of merit aid decisions on the choice to attend college across both minority students and students of low-income backgrounds. More specifically, the authors find that African American and students of low socioeconomic status perceive a greater impact from whether or not they receive merit aid on their decision to pursue an advanced degree. Both studies draw attention to the different impacts of aid policies across students with various levels of need and racial background.

The handful of studies reviewed here has helped draw attention to the complexities associated with promoting diversity and addressing inequities, including the promotion of both vertical and intergenerational equity, in the higher education system. The authors cited over the past two years have advanced our understanding of the effects of political interventions in institutional admissions policies, the political and administrative factors important to improving minority student access and success, and the differential impacts of state and institutional policies across diverse groups of the population. More research is needed in regards to understanding how the broader political context and accountability mechanisms adopted can help improve graduation rates among students of color, and help close gaps in achievement that persist today.


In this research note we have reviewed a sample of the more recent work in higher education policy conducted over the past two years that has contributed to our understanding of how political and institutional relationships impact policy and student outcomes in postsecondary education. These studies continue to advance our knowledge of the broader state contextual forces that shape the nature of higher education policy, as well as the policy implications of programs and initiatives designed to meet the challenges outlined by Heller (2001a) almost a decade ago including issues in accountability, affordability, and access.

In reviewing the most recent scholarship in higher education policy, it is abundantly clear that the increased use of theoretical frameworks borrowed from political science and public policy has been instrumental in pushing the boundaries of education research. From policy streams and diffusion, to principal-agent relationships, the subject of higher education provides ample opportunities to test theories from a number of disciplines, including political science and public policy. The interaction between state political variables and institutional outcomes is especially fertile ground in higher education research, particularly given recent discussions of accountability policies and the struggle between state engineered improvements in institutional performance and the preservation of institutional autonomy in postsecondary education.

Furthermore, research on federal and state financial aid and financing of higher education are especially relevant given the recent economic decline that has forced state policymakers to make difficult decisions in regards to spending. Understanding how both institutions and students are affected by either state or federal-level decisions are particularly poignant in understanding the second order effects of policy, as well as the unintended consequences. For instance, a recent line of work has explored the impacts of increased federal grants-in-aid on tuition levels set by universities, better known as the “Bennett Hypotheses,” and the overall impacts of competing financing alternatives on state higher education policy and the behavior of postsecondary institutions that shows considerable promise (Curs & Dar, 2010; Curs, Singell, & Waddell, 2007; Singell & Stone, 2007).

Lastly, in the past decade and a half, more attention has been paid to issues of diversity and the success of students from all backgrounds in the higher education system. As our country has become increasingly diverse, the importance of improving access and success to a quality education beyond high school for students of all backgrounds is especially important in addressing disparities in our society and growing gaps between the haves and have-nots. The use of financial aid and other state policy levers will be important to understand different ways of addressing inequity in higher education in more legally palatable ways. While not a complete review of the higher education literature, the scholars mentioned here have advanced our knowledge of the politics of higher education put forth by McLendon (2003) less than a decade ago, and have attempted to address the challenges that confront policymakers in the 21st century.

Thaddieus W. Conner is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

Thomas M. Rabovsky is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.


The authors would like to thank Alisa Hicklin Fryar for providing invaluable guidance throughout the writing process, and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments.

  1. We approached the selection of articles for the following review according to several decision rules. First, given the broad range of topics covered in the past two years concerning education policy more broadly, we have narrowed the scope of the following research note to include only those scholarly works that pertain to the politics of postsecondary education. As such, we primarily focused our search on leading journals in Public Policy, Public Administration, and Education. Second, we focus our review on the major works that have advanced research on the politics of higher education according to three broad areas: accountability, affordability, and access, which we identified as the central themes that have preoccupied recent scholarship. Third, while we focus primarily on journal articles, we also included a few books that have made substantial contributions to our understanding of policy in postsecondary education. While we acknowledge that our selection of articles may be seen as subjec- tive, we feel that it best captures the most recent developments in the study of higher education policy, as well as the leading contributors in the field.


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