Iowa State University

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Strategic Plan 2005-2010

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Report Brief

Beyond Dead Reckoning: Research Priorities for Redirecting American Higher Education


This report was issued by the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI) in 2002. It promotes a set of research priorities identified by NCPI that will enable those most responsible for American higher education to shape the enterprise in more purposeful ways. The need for such priorities is based on the belief that higher education is less than it should be. The report provides a research agenda for policymakers and institutional leaders that will enable higher education to exert a more forceful voice in the national dialogue about societys goals and ideals.


  • The report asserts that the fundamental question facing higher education researchers is Access to what? It is meant to encourage an examination of access in light of the content and quality of education provided to students and the institutional impact on their learning and later achievement.
  • The research agenda highlighted in the report includes three priorities, the need for which grew out of a set of themes that call for systematic inquiry into neglected issues at the heart of higher educations societal obligations:
    • higher education receives broad public support
    • despite some notable progress on the frontiers of reform since the 1960s and 1970s, higher educations core practices remain largely unchanged, rendering the enterprise less than it should be in todays environment
    • higher educations performance for the most part has fallen short of fostering an engaged citizenry

Research priority one: Improving educational quality and institutional performance

  • Most colleges and universities have not developed institutional definitions of educational quality
  • Few institutions actually use assessment results
  • Serious questions exist about the quality of instruction and advising that students receive
  • Dramatic change in the academic workforce, the increased press for accountability, the need for a more diverse faculty, changing student demographics, uncertainty about funding priorities, and the decline in the proportion of tenure-line faculty contribute to the transformation of academic work and who does it
  • The question Access to what? leads to additional questions:
    • How can colleges and universities become more effective learning organizations?
    • How can they link knowledge about learning to the practice of teaching?
    • How can they manage the changing academic workforce?

Research priority two: Balancing market forces with higher educations public purposes

  • During the past three decades policymakers have increasingly allowed markets to replace direct public investment as an instrument of achieving the public good
  • Higher educations system of cross-subsidization makes it all but impossible to understand how an institution actually spends the money received in the name of undergraduate education
  • Colleges and universities find it increasingly difficult to be both mission-centered and market-smart absent strong counter-pressures, the institutional pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunity can turn institutions into holding companies in which the center has diminished capacity to shape the activities of its own perimeter
  • Higher education requires a strategy that enables institutions, even as they are increasingly privately funded, to remain publicly committed

Research priority three: Drawing new maps for a changing enterprise

  • The framework that has shaped the federal governments program of data collection for colleges and universities was created in the 1970s and its definitional framework has been overwhelmed by shifts in patterns of student enrollments and institutional practices
  • Terms of reference have come to mean different things to different people
  • Colleges and universities of all types are extending their reach into new collaborative agreements without precedents to guide them


This report calls for an end to the disjunction between societal necessity and institutional inertia.

It asserts that higher education is led with guesswork and suggests that the research priorities it defines will assist policymakers and institutional leaders in fulfilling the fields promise of providing high quality higher education to all. Recommendations include:

  • The development of a culture of evidence an environment characterized by a willingness not only to create measures and collect data on outcomes, but also to use this information to redesign practices for improving quality
  • Making progress on the learning agenda by addressing the learning needs of all students hence the importance of incorporating learning assessment techniques into the practice of teaching.
  • Investment in research to:
    • understand more clearly how the changing workforce can be organized and prepared more effectively
    • examine the impact of the revenue-generating imperative on campus management practices and across academic fields
    • create new maps for a changing enterprise, without which higher education institutions will continue to lack a reliable frame of reference for understanding how and when things have changed or when and how to chart a new course


National Center for Postsecondary Improvement. (2002, October). Beyond dead reckoning: Research priorities for redirecting American higher education. Stanford, CA: Author.

Submitted by Leah Ewing Ross, March 2004. This is a report summary and excerpts are quoted directly from the text.

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Iowa State was the first chartered land-grant institution.