Several unexpected victories, Democrats seizing control of the House of Representatives and possible recounts in tight races captured America's attention last night, but the results of a handful of state- and city-level ballot initiatives could have critical implications for public higher education.
Voters threw their support behind several funding-related measures as colleges struggle to find their financial footing amid declining undergraduate enrollment and years of shrinking state support. Other measures put up to vote also passed, including upholding transgender student's rights, workforce development initiatives and funding for free college programs.
In addition to the ballot measures, big moves in the legislature could also change the direction of U.S. higher education policy. Democrats, who won a majority in the House, could take steps to frustrate the federal Education Department's agenda.
Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department has worked to reverse or eliminate key Obama-era guidance and regulations. For example, it has moved to roll back regulations intended to provide more oversight of for-profit colleges, write new rules for how campuses investigate sexual misconduct and change standards for reviewing accreditors.
Democrats are now better-positioned to stall or thwart these efforts by pushing to eliminate funding for the department's regulatory efforts or holding oversight hearings to highlight conflicts of interest, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. But with a divided Congress, any new higher education laws without heavy bipartisan support — such a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act — seem unlikely.
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Maine, Question 4
Update: Voters approved the bond measure to update or build facilities in the state university system. With 83% of precincts reporting, 54.4.% of votes were in favor.
The bond measure would inject $49 million into the University of Maine System to update or build facilities, with projects requiring matching funds from other public or private sources. Proponents hope the measure will help the public college system become more competitive, fill jobs left vacant due to a lack of skilled workers, and attract out-of-state students amid declining enrollment numbers. The projects supported by the bond must have a goal of helping to expand the system’s workforce development initiatives and draw in and retain students.
Maine's colleges have been hit hard by one of the biggest hurdles facing U.S. colleges and universities: a dwindling pool of high school graduates. Maine is one of many states seeing their population fall, and researchers predict that the state, along with Vermont and New Hampshire, could lose up to 23% of their expected college students by 2029.
Massachusetts, Question 3
Update: Voters upheld the state law in question that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in public places. Sixty-eight percent of voters were in favor of the law with 87% of precincts reporting.
This ballot measure determined whether the state would repeal a 2016 state law enabling people to access gender-segregated public areas, such as bathroom and locker facilities, that correspond with their gender identity. If the law is repealed, it could set a precedent for other states that may wish to do away with their own anti-discrimination protections for transgender individuals, Boston.com reported.
Whether laws supporting transgender individuals remain on the books has far-reaching implications in the wake of reports that the Trump administration is planning to set a narrow definition of gender under Title IX based solely on someone's sex at birth. A draft memo describing the definition, which was obtained by The New York Times in October, was met with heavy criticism among LGBTQ advocates who say it could lead to discrimination in K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities, and set off a flurry of legal challenges.
Update: Voters renewed the property tax measure that would provide funding for higher education. More than 61% of voters were in favor with 83% of precincts reporting.
The measure has passed each time it was asked in the past, though the margin has continued to narrow primarily due to resistance to tax increases. Part of the shrinking support for the levy also stems from growing distrust in higher education. Nearly half (48%) of respondents to a recent nationwide Gallup poll said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education, a drop from 57% in 2015. The poll also highlighted a partisan divide, with Republicans’ confidence dropping 17% during the three-year period while Democrats' dipped by just 6%.
New Jersey, Question 1
Update: The measure to authorize a school projects bond passed by a small margin, with a little more than 52% of voters in favor and nearly all precincts reporting.
Some colleges grappling with how to improve student outcomes have turned to offering stackable credentials as a way for students to upskill quickly without the time or money commitment needed for a full degree program. New Jersey could incentivize these types of credentials with a ballot measure that borrows money for a slew of education initiatives, including upgrading school water infrastructure, improving security and doing out career and technical education grants at county vocational schools and community colleges.
Colleges that offer stackable credentials or that have a partnership with a vocational school district would be prioritized for grants. The effort aims to better prepare students for in-demand skilled careers while aligning programming to fit with the needs of the local workplace.
New Mexico, Question D
Update: New Mexico passed the education bond measure. More than 65% of voters were in favor with 90% of precincts fully reporting.
New Mexico hoped to improve its graduates' workforce readiness and attract more students to its colleges, all while grappling with one of the lowest high school graduation rates among U.S. states. To combat these issues, the bond measure borrows about $136 million to renovate the state's higher education institutions. Proponents of the measure say it would help improve New Mexico's higher education offerings and help the state attract top faculty to its colleges.
Seattle, Proposition 1
Update: Seattle passed the free college measure, with more than two-thirds of voters (68.5%) casting their ballot in support, according to The Seattle Times.
This ballot measure uses a portion of roughly $620 million from property tax increases to provide Seattle's public high school graduates with free community college, according to The Seattle Times, which notes the initiative has raised considerable funds ahead of the vote and that similar levies have previously passed.
Such free college, or promise, programs have gained traction in recent years, though critics say they can be difficult to implement effectively and often don’t help the low-income students they aim to support because they tend not to cover non-tuition costs such as living and transportation expenses.
Despite some of the criticism, a similar initiative in Washington state called the College Bound Scholarship has delivered results that indicate these type of programs can provide an incentive to graduate from high school. The program covers tuition as well as some fees and materials for low-income students who meet certain academic, economic and other criteria in high school. Among students who qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch, 75% of those in the program graduated on time, compared to 54% not in the program who did so, according to The Seattle Times.