Fingerhut, Strickland Release Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Higher Education

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, both as a candidate for the job and during the 14 months in the job, has said solving Ohio’s education puzzle – constitutional funding for primary and secondary education and taming the lions of higher education that have produced a college education in Ohio more expensive than others -- will be the central issue in his first-term, one that will define whether he has been a success or not.

Strickland said he wants 230,000 additional students in Ohio colleges by 2017 and wants to bring state support for colleges – now at $4,539 per pupil – to the national average of $5,640 per pupil.

Yet despite the laudable nature of these goals, the real-time fiscal problems of state and Strickland's clarion call to department heads to make cuts in order to stave off a budget imbalance in 2009 that ranges between $733 million and $1.9 billion make be working counter-clockwise to producing students ready to enter college.

One example of this is given voice in this editorial about cuts Ohio's education department has made to a reading recovery training network program the assistant superintendent for Xenia Community Schools said "serves as the cornerstone of the reading improvement program for schools across the state."

From early May 2007 when Ohio’s Republican-led legislature accommodated Strickland on his ambitious plans for higher education by creating the Cabinet-level position of Chancellor and subordinating the former all-powerful Ohio Board of Regents to it, he has sought to command the chess board of higher education stakeholders whose agendas, political and otherwise, may or may not align with the future Strickland and his Chancellor envision.

But the vision to create a University System of Ohio over the next decade is now on paper with the release Monday of Chancellor Eric D. Fingerhut’s Strategic Plan for Higher Education.

Strickland said to legislative leaders that for “Ohio to compete and prosper in the new millennium’s global economy” it is now necessary to regain the “heritage and leadership and innovation in higher education” that produced a workforce that “once ranked among the world’s bested educated.”

Strickland framed the challenge Fingerhut’s plan addresses this way:

”For too long, Ohio has been ill-served by competition between institutions for students and resources, rather than the collaboration that would benefit all Ohioans.” [Gov. Strickland]

Fingerhut, a former Cleveland Congressman who served eight years in the Ohio Senate and who for a time sought the chief executive post in 2006, said his plan both “seeks to establish clear goals and measurements to track our progress”…and “describes the principle strategies we will use to reach these goals.”

This plan will guide us day to day, but the process of reforming higher education in Ohio will remain a work in progress. We must be flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances or to adjust strategies that are not working. I will conduct periodic reviews of the strategies and report publicly on progress made and changes needed.”[Fingerhut, The Plan]

The Chancellor said that while some aspects of the plan can be implemented by Strickland alone, collaboration and cooperation from others – the legislature and individual institutions – he has tried to “create a shared vision of the future of higher education in our state” and has incorporated ideas from colleagues across the state. W

”While I understand that some of our institutions may disagree with specific recommendations, I expect that all of them recognize the expanding role higher education must play in the future of our state, and on that basis will work with me to implement this plan.”

BUILDING BLOCKS FOR EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE

The three simple building blocks the plan is built upon are graduating more students, keeping more of them in Ohio and attracting more degree holders from out of state. Currently, only about one in five Ohioans (21%) holds a college degree and its aging workforce poses one of the state’s biggest public policy issues as the economy confronts a severe shortage of trained and experience workers in the coming decade.

Couple these troubling statistics with numbers that show the graduation rates for high-school graduates will drop going forward, the road to achieving the goals Fingerhut and Strickland have set for themselves will be a long, hard, uphill climb.

One example of how Ohio’s K-12 system is failing the future can be seen in figures that show, at least for the Columbus public school system, that only 60.6 percent in 2003-04 of its students graduated. As scary as this figure is, which used the state system, it is more sanguine than numbers produced by Gen. Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance, which say Columbus’ graduation rate is really just 40.9 percent. For Cleveland, the graduation rate is even worse, at 43.8 percent. Federal figures for a state graduation rate come in at 81.3 percent.

The University System of Ohio consists of the state’s 13 public university campuses, one medical college, 24 regional branch campuses and 23 community colleges, as well as adult literacy and adult workforce centers.

The strategic plan says that lowering costs is a top priority, one reached through a combination of cost-cutting and educational options offered by the state. It will also end the “counter-productive competition” among institutions for scare resources by refocusing the historic strengths and traditions of individual institutions into “distinctive missions,” which Fingerhut hopes will produce so-called Centers of Excellence that will be “drivers of both the regional and state economies.”

Fingerhut’s plan gives tuition-setting flexibility to state institutions, but it will be “contingent upon the institution’s ability to offer financial aid based on need to all qualified students” in accordance with guidelines Fingerhut will set. A further goal is convenience. He wants high-quality associate and bachelor’s programs in core fields – which he hopes will be among the lowest cost available anywhere in the country – to be made available within 30 miles of every Ohioan.

He wants every high school student who meets admission standards to be “dual admitted” to a community college and a public university, so they move “seamlessly from the college to the university” after meeting established benchmarks. Strickland’s Seniors to Sophomores program, which he launched in his State of the State speech in February, was also mentioned as a future feeder system to increase college-ready students.

He also wants to tie in adult workforce centers as well, making work there acceptable for college credit, which he says will open a path between these institutions that didn’t exist before.

The Ohio Skills Bank, which was recently moved from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to the Board of Regents, will help link industry demand to workforce supply in the state’s 12 economic development regions.

But what’s a plan with out means of measuring success? Fingerhut offered a list of 20 “measurements for success” that will be applied to how well it’s all going.

As plans go, especially the best laid ones by a governor and a chancellor, this one is bold in concept. But whether it will be the real road-map to the far flung future the chief executive and his education general want to see happen will largely depend on the willingness of political parties to reach agreement for the common good of the state instead of their partisan agendas for who controls which offices after the general elections later in November and the all-important statewide races in 2010, that will determine whether Strickland and company has a second term to finish unfinished work or whether it will be for naught as Republicans regain the high ground they lost in 2006.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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