Report: States Need to Step Up on Higher Ed

 

States must take the lead in the movement to fix the higher education crisis, a report released Monday by a commission of state legislators said.

"Higher education is a national imperative, there's no question about that, but it has been and remains a state responsibility," said Connecticut Rep. Denise Merrill (D), co-chair of a higher education study group put together by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The group, made up of NCSL staff and 12 legislators, six Republican and six Democrat, formed about 18 months ago to find out what state legislatures had done to add to higher education problems and what they could do to alleviate those problems.

The report said several issues, such as fewer people finishing college, stem from weak leadership, a low priority on higher education, and the way legislatures have subsidized colleges - funding only in reaction to problems and not to avert them, and cutting back in lean fiscal years because schools can raise tuition to make up the shortfall.

That's what has happened in Texas. State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R), another member of the commission, pointed out that adequate K-12 funding is mandated in the state constitution, whereas post-secondary funding is not.

"As you see (K-12) education costs go up and health care costs go up, you see the budgets start naturally squeezing out those things that's not constitutionally there," Morrison said. "Higher education has just been some of the leftovers at times when funding is difficult."

The commission, which met five times around the country, had 15 recommendations under four themes: setting clear, long-term goals; making college more accessible and affordable; making sure students graduate when they go to college; and holding institutions accountable.

One recommendation calls for states to tie funding to performance by requiring universities and colleges to report results to the legislature, or by granting money based on degree completion or the number of students who return for their sophomore year. Oklahoma, for example, rewards schools that improve retention and graduation rates.

Other proposals include defining clear goals, setting up a structure to "house" ongoing discussions about higher education, predicting and planning for demographic trends, encouraging partnerships with the business community, and finding a balance between merit- and need-based financial aid.

The commission's recommendations are purposely broad and avoided specific remedies that other post-secondary reports have called for, such as tuition freezes or tying tuition increases to inflation or median family income.

"The report is really missing specific suggestions for state because that wasn't our intent," said Julie Bell, the director of the NCSL Education Program. "There are a whole variety of policy options out there that we hope to get legislators talking about and thinking about, but we do not want to point to any real specific approaches to things and say, here's what you should do."

The NCSL report comes out on the heels of a September report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Several recommendations in both reports are similar, such as the calls for more accountability, improving access to college and raising graduation rates.

What the NCSL report attempts to do is clarify the states' role in improving higher education.

"The governance of state institutions has been at the state level and we think that's where it belongs," Merrill said. "This is one issue where we hope legislators will lead the discourse."

 
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