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Higher Education Research Policy Connection: How Intermediaries May Impact State-level Policy

Erik Ness

The need to connect research and public policy remains one of the most commonly identified challenges for the field of higher education. For instance, the theme of last year’s Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) annual conference posed a question about the “optimal alignment” of higher education scholarship and public policy. Examination of the research-policy divide has also served as a perennial topic of interest for recent ASHE Presidential Addresses and, as Jim Hearn (1997) points out, eminent scholars of higher education have colorfully described our field’s research as “trees without fruit” (Keller, 1985) and “shipyards in the desert” (Weiner, 1986) for its disconnect with what policymakers and practitioners consider useful. This is often attributed to fundamental differences in the settings and preferences of researchers and policymakers. Just as policymakers complain that academic research rarely informs contemporary policy debates, researchers lament policymakers’ preference for quick, straightforward solutions at the expense of analytic rigor. Yet, increasingly the policy organizations and state agencies that sit on the boundaries of the research and policy communities serve as effective intermediaries in encouraging the uptake of research evidence in public-policy decisions.

Given the steady attention by researchers and policymakers to their tenuous alignment, empirical examinations of research utilization in state policy decisions fall well short of the accumulating anecdotal evidence. For instance, we still know surprisingly little about fundamental issues related to research-policy connections, including: policymakers’ preferred sources of information; policymakers’ use of research to inform their policy decisions, or alternatively, to support previously held policy preferences; and, policy organizations’ efforts to provide information and/or advocate for certain policies. This article draws on my recent work analyzing research use by state-level higher education policymakers, including a more comprehensive synthesis of research utilization and theories of the public policymaking process (Ness, 2010). In the first part of this essay, I provide an overview of the core concepts related to research utilization including the two communities’ perspective, categories of research use, and preferred sources of information. The second part of the essay outlines the roles of three intermediary organizations—state higher education agencies, regional compacts, and national policy organizations—in the state higher education policymaking process.

Research Utilization

Two Communities. As popularized by C.P. Snow’s (1959) classic “two cultures” study of the humanities and sciences within academia, the “two communities” perspective essentially holds that researchers and policymakers are members of separate communities each with its own language, values, norms, and goals. In his Godkin Lecture at Harvard University, Snow delivered an address on “Science and Government,” in which he described how the former might (and might not) influence the decisions of the latter. Through a compelling narrative account of the role that two scientific experts played within Great Britain’s government during World War II, Snow (1961) offered a vivid description of power and politics within the “black box” of the policymaking process. In particular, Snow detailed how scientific knowledge can be marginalized in “closed politics” situations where personalities and personal relationships matter most. Ultimately, Snow urged scientists to better understand the political environment, offered a few prescriptive conditions to maximize the effectiveness of a government-science commission, and warned of placing too much power over decision-making in the hands of a single scientist.

During the “golden age” of research utilization studies, two authors in particular personified the link between the two communities of research and policy. Thomas Wolanin and Samuel Halperin served both as academics and as senior staff members in the federal government. Halperin (1974) emphasized the perceptions that the two communities hold of one another: politicians are only interested in re-election and thereby short-term results; and, educators are arrogant, poor communicators, and have little understanding of the political process. Wolanin’s (1976) primer on federal policymaking identified many obstacles which tend to prevent information from influencing policy decisions, such as omnibus bills that lump together dozens of loosely related bills thereby encouraging log-rolling by policymakers. These descriptive studies, without explicitly doing so, lend support to the “two  communities” perspective as an explanation for the non-use of information in the policy process.

Perhaps because of its intuitive appeal, this dichotomizing perspective also seems to be firmly embedded throughout the higher education literature. In fact, Apfel and Worthley (1979) implicitly used the two communities rationale to explain why state governments so seldom rely on universities for technical assistance. Indeed, their study concluded that “language barriers” and “heterophily—a condition in which sender and receiver are unlike one another in many respects” account for this trend. Similar to the essays by Wolanin (1976) and Halperin (1974), William Sederburg (1989), a Michigan state senator and former Michigan State University political scientist, identified a dozen hypotheses for the language gap between state legislators and academics and, ultimately, recommends that university leaders adopt a statewide perspective and a deeper understanding of the political process. Many higher education researchers are likely most familiar with the two-communities’ perspective through Robert Birnbaum’s (2000) article “Policy scholars are from Venus; Policy makers are from Mars,” which argues that the work of scholars and policymakers should remain “two distinct knowledge-producing activities whose insights might inform each another but are not dependent on each other.” Birnbaum’s article seems contrarian. Instead of arguing for a bridge between these two communities, Birnbaum defends their differences in aims and contexts, placing the onus of a research-policy connection on intermediaries such as governmental agencies’ or non-governmental organizations’ policy analysts, thereby excusing researchers and policymakers from any demands they alter their respective orbits. Having outlined the challenge to research utilization posed by the two-communities’ perspective from Snow’s “two cultures” to Birnbaum’s direct application to higher education, the next section reviews various classifications of research use in the policymaking process.

Categories of Research Use. Scholars have identified many different ways in which research is used in the policymaking process, however, Carol Weiss’s (1980) three category typology of research use remains the guiding work. First, instrumental use refers to the direct application of research to specific policy decisions. This model of research utilization follows most closely the rational choice model of decision-making in which a problem is identified, information is gathered about possible solutions, then the optimal solution is adopted. Research utilization scholars have argued that the use of information in the policy process has been under-estimated, at least in part, because researchers were looking solely at the instrumental use of information.

The second type of research utilization, conceptual use, refers to the broader, longer-term role that research can have on policymakers’ understanding of certain policy issue. Considering federal student financial aid policy as an example, the instrumental use of research evidence might show the direct impact of increasing the Pell grant award amount on increased enrollment rates of lower-income students. The conceptual use of research evidence, however, would include the cumulative effect of a broad range of studies on the impact of college affordability on student enrollment, retention, and persistence even if this research does not immediately inform a specific bill or policy decision.

The third type, political use, refers primarily to the tactical or symbolic use of information by policymakers. Usually this entails a policymaker using research evidence to bolster support for previously held positions or policy preferences, as opposed to using research to identify the optimal policy solution. Policymakers might make political use of research by distributing research findings to fellow legislators as a means of gaining support for an issue important to their district. Formal testimony or hearings before legislative committees is often another form of tactical research use, especially when all the experts in a panel provide evidence in support of policymakers’ preferred policies.

Sources of Information. As a means to better understand both the supply- and demand-sides of research utilization, scholars have examined policymakers’ preferred sources of information. Early studies primarily explored how policymakers utilized specific social science research as opposed to broader sources of information that influence their decision-making. For instance, Weiss (1980) controls for the sources of information by generating hundreds of standardized two-page abstracts of research findings that federal agency staff then rate and assess in terms of perceived usefulness. While these seminal studies produced much of the conceptual development undergirding the study of research utilization, they were of a much narrower focus than more recent studies, which have sought to capture the specific types of information that policymakers are most prone to utilize.

For the most part, studies have found that policymakers prefer insider sources, such as legislative staff and fellow legislators, to outsider sources, such as the media and academics. For example, Webber (1987) finds that “legislative colleagues” rank highest in usefulness and frequency of policy information sources. Similarly, Mooney (1991) finds that legislators prefer each of three information sources at a different stage of the legislative process: (1) insider sources are preferred at voting decision stage, (2) outsider sources are preferred at the development stage, and (3) middle-range sources, such as interest groups, are preferred at the “persuasion” or policy formulation stage. Mooney contends that this strategy leads legislators to rely upon one another for their specific areas of expertise at least in part because they are able to “speak the same language” and also based on the willingness of legislators to trust fellow members with similar ideological views. Yet, both Webber and Mooney find evidence of legislators relying on external sources for the conceptual use of information. Webber, for instance, finds that legislators who value their role as a “policy conveyer,” one who translates and communicates public policy issues and solutions to the broader public, are much more reliant on external sources, such as university and research organizations. These sources are more likely than insider sources, such as legislator committee staff or state agencies, to conduct new research rather than synthesize its core findings.

Based on legislators’ inherent re-election interests, constituents serve as another influential source of information. Mayhew’s (1974) classic and elegant electoral-connection perspective famously characterized elected officials as “single- minded re-election seekers.” Accordingly, the best indicator of legislators’ policy preferences is the public opinion of citizens in their districts, which permit the legislator to satisfy voter demands and thus become re-elected. As mentioned above, Mooney finds that constituents serve as valuable outsider sources of information, especially driving the development of legislation. In fact, he finds that constituent letters and phone call logs generated much bill-drafting activity, but exerted a notably low level of influence on the ultimate voting decision itself. Alternatively, Gray and Lowery (2000), in a single case study of Minnesota legislators and staffers, find that the importance of constituents as an information source ranks the second highest for both identifying problems and voting behavior.

State governmental agencies serve as another common source of policy information. For higher education, this source would include the statewide governing or coordinating board for public higher education institutions. Yet, according to Gray and Lowery (2000) and Webber (1987), legislators rank state agencies as only moderately useful and as an infrequent source of information. However, among legislators who value scientific and technical information, Webber finds a strong correlation to the usefulness of state agency information. In one of the few research utilization studies to consider higher education policy adoption, Shakespeare (2008) examines the role of the governing board systems, State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY), in the budget decision process. Shakespeare’s analysis reveals that multiple, competing coalitions rely heavily upon SUNY and CUNY data and analysis to bolster their position in favor of or in opposition to altering the state’s Tuition Assistance Program.

Think tanks, the final source of information, have become increasingly more prevalent in the policymaking process. With the swelling number of think tanks in recent decades, these organizations have varied agendas and missions ranging from research producers, research translators, issue advocacy, and ideological advancement. Andrew Rich’s (2004) book on the role of think tanks on federal public policy states that policymakers perceive think tanks to be “more marketing than research organizations, with styles of behavior that mimic interest groups rather than universities.” Rich argues that think tanks’ aggressive marketing efforts and increasing ideological and partisan alliances have blurred the boundaries between experts and advocates. Ultimately, he argues that the influence of think tanks is mitigated by their propensity to deliver research information in the same polemic fashion that characterizes the policymaking process, and thus clearly aligns with the political use of information.

Intermediary Organizations

This section focuses primarily on three intermediary organizations that often provide policy information and expertise: national policy organizations, regional compacts, and statewide higher education agencies. As the term suggests, intermediary organizations serve a translating function between two principals with different values and perspectives, which for higher education would be governments and colleges. Intermediaries, such as the Business Higher Education Forum and European Research Council, for example, have been shown to maximize research utilization in crafting research policy (e.g., Gornitzka, 2009; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997). My recent work builds upon these studies of the boundary spanning between science and politics of national or supranational organizations to explore public policymaking at the state-level. The discussion below outlines the roles and functions of three intermediaries and offers questions that might guide future inquiry on how these intermediary organizations might bridge the research-policy communities.

National policy organizations. There are a host of national higher education policy organizations that supply valuable research-based information and many actively consult with state-level elected officials and higher education leaders. These organizations also hold conferences or training sessions for state policy actors, thereby potentially serving as “opinion leaders” or “change agents” within the field (Nutley et al., 2007, p. 185). The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, for instance, has been advocating for more affordable higher education opportunities through the biannual release of the Measuring Up: The National Report Card. The State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) serves both as the professional association for chief higher education officers in each state and as a policy organization that conducts research and consults on issues ranging from finance to accountability to P-16 transitions. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) consults widely with state leaders on higher education governance structures and finance policy and has developed a user- friendly web portal—NCHEMS Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis (

Regional compacts. Four state-level higher education policymaking, regional compacts serve as valuable information sources and often as advocates for certain policy initiatives. All states, with three exceptions (New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), belong to one of four regional compacts: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Midwest Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), and Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Consistent with their original missions to share resources and advance education in their regions, these compacts facilitate articulation and tuition reciprocity agreements and lend expert analysis on higher education issues that individual states may not have the capacity to produce.

National policy consortia and regional compacts can be classified as intermediary organizations primarily based on structural and functional characteristics. Structurally, regional compacts serve both elected officials and higher education administrators. State participation in compacts and some national policy organizations is approved by elected officials and compacts’ boards of directors include governors and legislators from member-states. Compacts also work directly with state higher education officials to coordinate member-state efforts on policy goals and to systematically collect and distribute data. Functionally, compacts provide policy briefs targeted at elected officials and more detailed policy reports for higher education officials. Similarly, the professional staffs of both regional compacts and national consortia consult with policymakers individually, provide formal testimony, host meetings of state higher education leaders, and collaborate with higher education officials on state and regional policy initiatives. In many ways, regional compacts function as a combination of think tanks and state agencies. They produce reports and possess expertise similar to think tanks, but since states pay membership fees, policymakers may value this information as less biased than other partisan-aligned think tanks. However, without the formal reporting structure of state agencies and given their location outside of state capitals, regional compacts maintain an outsider status that can mitigate or accentuate their influence on the policy process. The conceptual understanding of regional compacts’ and of national policy organizations’ structural and functional characteristics on state higher education policy could be enhanced by greater attention to this boundary function.

A deeper understanding of the role that regional compacts play on policy adoption would add clarity to the role of research utilization. For instance, to what extent do policymakers value or rely upon information provided by regional compacts? Does the type of information (i.e., original empirical research, descriptive data reports, policy briefs) influence the likelihood of utilization? Does the frequency or mode of interaction (i.e., testimony, written formal reports, individual communication with legislators) matter? Also, do elected officials’ participation on a compact’s board of directors or various committees serve to moderate the two-communities divide? This study tests many of these questions in hopes of identifying empirical effects and informing future inquiry in the utilization of research.

State higher education agencies. Although the manner in which state agencies govern higher education varies widely, state-level higher education agencies serve crucial roles in providing information to and interceding between government and colleges. The conventional classifications for statewide governance structures include consolidated governing boards (all higher education institutions are governed by one board), coordinating boards (one board represents statewide interests, but single- or multi-institution governing boards retain varying degrees of authority), and planning agencies (state agencies have very little formal authority, as with coordinating board structure, single- or multi-institution governing boards retain varying degrees of authority). These three governance arrangements range in the level of formal authority, thereby influencing the dynamic of the state agencies relationship with the government and campuses. Early studies of statewide higher education governance suggest that coordinating and planning agencies are more likely to advance state interests over campuses than are consolidated governing board arrangements (e.g., Berdahl, 1971). These differences have important implications for their role as intermediary organizations.

Regardless of the degree of centralization, the agencies largely emerged in the mid-20th century with the primary function to buffer state government from postsecondary education institutions. This buffering (or boundary) role of state agencies best represents their function as intermediary organizations. Prior to the creation of statewide governance systems, campus leaders directly represented their interests to state legislatures and governors. The resulting policy and appropriations decisions often reflected the strength of these individual relationships more so than the wider interests of the state. Without an intermediary organization, for example, how could legislators determine which new campus buildings were of highest priority or how to equitably appropriate funds across varying institution types (e.g., flagship research universities, regional colleges and universities, community colleges)? These governance structures now have varying levels of influence on statewide master planning, budget allocations (or recommendations), and academic program approval. These general structural differences also suggest that higher education agencies may impact research utilization in the policy process.


Higher education intermediaries stand to influence heavily the use of research evidence in state higher education policy decisions. By virtue of their membership and leadership, in fact, regional and national policy organizations connect the two communities and provide many venues for formal and informal networking. Initial evidence from my studies suggests that these networks, over time, lead to the conceptual use research even if policymakers make tactical use of information to advance their research-supported policy preferences.

Although the alluring analogy of the two communities’ chasm is likely to persist based on the seemingly endless supply of anecdotal evidence, deeper investigation of the boundary roles played by higher education intermediaries may reveal tighter research-policy connections than conventionally thought.



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Erik C. Ness is assistant professor of higher education and graduate coordinator in the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. Previously, he served as an assistant professor and coordinator of the Higher Education Management program at the University of Pittsburgh and as a policy analyst for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Professor Ness conducts research on the politics of higher education, the public policy process, student financial aid, and the finance and governance of higher education systems. Professor Ness also serves on the executive committee of ASHE’s Council on Public Policy and Higher Education, as a consulting editor for Research in Higher Education, as chair of the selection committee for the Politics of Education Association’s Outstanding Dissertation Award, and as an associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

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Graduate Coordinator and Professor of Higher Education
Sunday, March 4, 2012 - 12:25pm

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