Budget allocations for higher education vary from state to state, but most states included increases in their budgets for higher ed in the next fiscal year. However, a drastic drop in allocations in the previous fiscal year means that many states will actually be increasing higher ed spending less than they did only two years prior, according to presenters during a webinar co-hosted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Education Commission of the States, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Dustin Weedin, a senior policy analyst at NCSL, noted that FY 2017 had been particularly trying for many state legislatures due to a variety of factors, including sluggish revenue growth, an increase in spending for Medicaid and other programs and uncertainty regarding what kind of federal policy changes would be forthcoming. Taken as a whole, he said, K-12 and higher ed spending is down since the 2008 crash and subsequent recession.
The webinar, titled “Higher Education Policy and the States: A Review of the 2017 Legislative Sessions,” examined how state legislatures across the country have addressed a variety of higher ed issues, from financial aid and workforce development to campus safety and the free speech movement.
Continuous support for workforce development initiatives
Despite broader concerns surrounding financial aid challenges, state legislatures and other funders continuously focused on workforce development as an area of particular success. Neal Holly, the Assistant Director of the Education Commission of the States’ Postsecondary and Workforce Development Institute, pointed towards the expansion of the “Tennessee Promise” legislation, which offered a last-dollar scholarship for adults who hoped to enroll (or re-enroll) in community college. The program will cost about $10 million, and is one of several targeted endeavors to support workforce training.
“When we are seeing more money for new financial aid for higher education, it’s around this workforce conversation,” Holly said.
He also pointed to an executive order signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott allocating $85 million for a new grant fund that would help pay for job training programs at public universities. Additionally, free college legislation was a particularly popular source of debate in legislatures; 24 states introducing bills regarding free tuition, with 46 bills introduced in total. Of these, seven bills were passed in four states.
Tuition increases were lower than in the years immediately following the recession, according to Dylan Opalich, an Assistant Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis with the AASCU, with an average rate increase of 2.8%. The majority of tuition increases were accounting for inflation, Opalich said, though the states whose public systems saw the highest tuition increases were typically the states that had received substantively lower levels of funding in the previous legislative session. Additionally, some states remained under tuition freezes carrying over from prior years, and Opalich cautioned that tuition increases could sometimes get caught up in political squabbles.
“A lot of times, tuition is used as a bargaining chip,” she said. “It’s politically not very ideal to increase tuition, so often governors or legislators will encourage institutions to keep their tuition increases as low as possible in return for funding the next year, or any type of incentive. We’re seeing that trend continue.”
Little state support for sanctuaries
Though the dubious future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order concerns the federal government, seven state legislatures have considered a number of bills that would prohibit institutions from identifying themselves as sanctuary campuses. Tom Harnisch, the Director of State Relations for the AASCU, said public colleges were limited by what they could do to assist undocumented students, and that a sanctuary campus designation could potentially be “writing a check that they can’t cash.” Eighteen states currently allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, Harnisch noted, and some state legislatures that do not have such legislation held informal discussions on it in the previous year. However, there has not been additional legislative action on the state level.
Free speech debates abound
Free speech debates also were a topic of considerable note and controversy in state legislatures in the previous year, with 23 state legislatures considering bills on the topic. Many of these, including legislation in North Carolina passed without the signature of the state’s governor, were based upon model legislation language from conservative think tank the Goldwater Institute. Some bills wanted to restrict campus’ ability to create “free speech” zones, but much of the legislation reiterated protections already enjoyed on public campuses. However, one particular part of some proposed legislation could potentially hinder the autonomy higher ed administrators; some state legislators suggested that the state mandate certain types of disciplinary actions to be taken on students who had “violated” another’s First Amendment rights.
“We believe this should be left up to the institution,” Opalich said, noting that North Carolina’s free speech legislation had actually been softened since its initial introduction in regards to the control legislators demanded regarding such disciplinary measures.
Harnisch said he expects the issues facing state legislatures in regards to higher education would continue in the following year, with challenges like affordability and the status of undocumented students likely to “bubble up” in the state legislature. He also noted that some legislatures were looking ahead to FY 2018 and were already expecting there to be cuts to higher ed, but said it would vary significantly from state to state. The panelists touched on a variety of additional topics, with Holly noting that higher ed reserve funds were sometimes considered by legislatures, but they could be a hard sell. Such reserve funds do not have a dedicated revenue stream, he said, so they must depend on excess revenue, which is rare. Legislators are also concerned about the possibility that such funds could potentially be raided in the event of statewide fiscal challenges.
“They can also be controversial,” he said, “where states feel that institutions are hoarding money while increasing tuition.”