I have always been particularly fond of this colloquial saying. I’m not quite sure when my affinity for it emerged, but particularly in my professional career, I have found it to be a useful internal mantra for affecting change in an organization. It feels especially appropriate in the context of educational organizations and particularly applicable to higher education. And while I acknowledge that educational policy development and change sometimes appear to be moving at a glacial pace, it is often for practical and pragmatic reasons.
Higher education policy seems to be a topic about which anyone who attended college feels they must be an expert. The ever-present opening statement, “when I was in college…” can be followed by any number of ill-informed or anecdotal statements about which the speaker believes policy should be based. Further, while shared governance is an essential and defining quality of higher education, it can also appear to stymie opportunity and be used as a tactic of obstinance.
Despite these challenges, I have long felt that incremental change and continuous improvement are effective policy and change approaches in higher education. Rippner (2016) describes a number of policy theories in education including incrementalism, multiple streams, punctuated equilibrium, and advocacy coalition framework and policy diffusion. While there are elements of each of these theories I can appreciate and have witnessed in my own work with higher education policy, I find alignment with incrementalism. Incrementalism proposes that policy change builds over the course of time. It is not abrupt change and may be criticized as taking a path of least resistance. However, incrementalism can represent a thoughtful and inclusive approach to policy development and change.
As McDonnell and Weatherford (2013) highlight, policy making is often neither linear nor predictable. As such, an incremental approach may often allow for greater agility within an organization by responding to new or emerging information or outcomes. It also may preclude educational organizations to overcommitting to a policy element before sufficient research, communication or engagement occurs.
While the public good of primary and secondary education has long been established, perspectives on the public good of higher education have changed over time (Nixon, 2010). Like primary and secondary education, higher education represents a complex multi-year investment for students, families and governments. This multi-year context supports the need for incremental change as the educational process itself is incremental, building on learning that occurs in earlier years or earlier classes. For this reason, students and learning benefit from continuity, including continuity in policy.
Incrementalism also presents a strong case for robust policy evaluation. An organization that commits to continuous improvement stemming from policy evaluation can continue to build and refine a policy and policy implementation to make use of evaluation outcomes and recommendations. They can be adaptive and responsive, benefiting from ongoing evaluation and feedback.
For decades, the California State University (CSU) supported a policy which afforded undergraduate students the ability to benefit from access to courses offered by all campuses. Under the intrasystem concurrent enrollment policy, a student enrolled at one CSU campus to enroll in one course at another CSU campus for no additional tuition fees. Originally crafted at a time when all classes were face-to-face, the policy was typically only utilized by students in regions of the state with multiple CSU campuses. With the advent of online course modalities, the policy has been incrementally adjusted and updated to afford statewide opportunities, ensure clearer course articulation and reciprocity and been brought to the foreground of student enrollment opportunities. This multi-year incremental approach to policy change provided continuity to students and benefited from evaluation of existing policy requirements and the adaptability afforded by technology.
As Rippner (2016) notes, incrementalism is a practical approach to policy-making in education. It represents common-sense approaches that can build trust and transparency within and around an educational organization. Incrementalism may not always account for complexity and sometimes it may be superseded by a clarion call for immediate change, but it can frequently be the way for good and effective policy to make it to the finish line.
McDonnell, L. M., & Weatherford, M. S. (2013). Evidence use and the common core state standards movement: from problem definition to policy adoption. American Journal of Education, 120, 1–25.
Nixon, J. (2010). Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University. London: Continuum
Rippner, J. A. (2016). The American policy landscape. New York: Routledge.