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Statehouse Races and Higher Ed

October 26, 2006

They stand on a couch, but that doesn't do the trick. They try again from the stairs, but the two youngsters featured in Martin O’Malley’s campaign advertisement just can't touch that darned college diploma that's framed on the wall.

“These days, a college degree is just beyond the reach of too many Maryland families,” the announcer says in a foreboding voice.

O'Malley's opponent in the Maryland governor's race, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., portrays himself as a middle-class success story in his own folksy campaign ad.

"My folks didn't come from a lot of money," Ehrlich says in a less-than-foreboding voice. "College was going to be difficult under any circumstances. So, I worked hard, received a few scholarships, played some football and sold sandwiches for pocket money. I was given an education, and the opportunity to succeed in life."

Each candidate devotes an entire television spot to higher education, which has emerged as one of the defining issues in the Maryland governor’s race, as it has in a number of other campaigns across the country. 

While no candidate is going so far as to tout budget cuts to his or her flagship campus, Charles Merritt, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, said this election features dialogue that underscores the sharply different opinions about the role of states in providing (and, importantly, paying for) higher education for their citizens. “Some candidates see it as a basic public right, and other candidates are implicitly saying there is a limit to what the state can provide," he said.

Republicans control 28 of 50 statehouses entering the midterm election, and 36 seats are up for grabs.

"The nation is purple," Merritt said. "It's divided across the board -- with state legislators and governors at odds. If there's a shift in party control, if it results in more purpling, gridlock is a possibility.

"In an environment of split government control, increased funding for higher education may become more politicized as competing philosophical views about the state role in funding higher education become harder to gel into consensus government action," he added.

Emerging Themes

College affordability and need-based financial aid have, not surprisingly, emerged as two major issues in the run-up to November 7, as evidenced by profiles of five key races that appear below. Here are a few other overarching issues that have factored into this year's races:

  • Community college support. Merritt said it appears that a recent campaign to re-focus the dialogue about higher education as a "public good" -- and in particular the practical importance of community colleges -- is reaching statehouses. “Across the board, there’s at least nominal support for boosting funding for community colleges as a response to the need for more job training. As far as following through, I don't know."
  • Brain drain. Led by a major effort in Iowa (see below), a number of gubernatorial candidates are calling for programs that give incentives for the best and brightest -- and often the neediest -- students to stay in state for college. Nebraska's Democratic candidate, David Hahn, wants to create 375 scholarships for veterans from any state who served in Iraq or Afghanistan to attend college in Nebraska at in-state tuition rates. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, proposed a 15-year, $175 million program that would give more than 1,000 scholarships per year to cover half of tuition costs of any one of the state's institutions. In Nevada, Democrat Dina Titus is calling for increased tuition for out-of-state students, with some of the revenue going toward financial aid programs for students wanting to become nurses, teachers and emergency first responders, according to the campaign. The students would have loans forgiven if they stay and work in the state.
  • K-20 councils -- to better coordinate education from elementary through postsecondary -- appear to be popular among candidates, who Merritt said are proposing to “actually give them some teeth." In Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, is touting the new P-20 council that aligns high school and college work expectations. Colorado's Democratic candidate, Bill Ritter , wants more high school courses that sync up with either vocational courses or traditional college classes. In Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, a Republican, is calling for a higher education consortium in each region to better connect colleges and universities with high schools and businesses.
  • Credit transfer. In Oregon, incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, wants students to be able to transfer university credits and community college credits from any Oregon campus to another. The idea has traction in a number of other states, including Iowa (see below).

Here is a look at five contested races in which higher education is playing a significant role:

Arkansas

With the incumbent governor, Republican Mike Huckabee, forced out by term limits, a wide-open campaign has ensued in what Merritt called a "toss-up state." A key difference in the contenders' platforms is their plan for dispensing scholarships to Arkansas' low-income students.  

Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who is a former U.S. homeland security undersecretary, wants increased spending on the existing Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, a combined merit- and need-based aid program for families of moderate incomes (the ceiling for one-child families is $60,000.)  His opponent, Mike Beebe, a Democrat who is the state’s attorney general, is proposing the creation of Educational Enhancement Grants, $1,000 annual need-based college scholarships for students whose families earn less than $25,000 a year. Roughly $12 million would be needed for the first phase of the program, the Beebe camp says. 

"Studies show that our state lacks enough need-based scholarships," said Zac Wright, a Beebe campaign spokesman. "Mike Beebe worked his way through college and is somebody who would have benefited from aid." 

In a state that has traditionally lagged in income growth and job creation, community college workforce training programs are again an issue, Merritt said. Hutchinson's proposal calls for money from the state's general improvement fund to go toward bolstering workforce training programs at two-year institutions. He said the annual discretionary fund often totals $50 million -- about half of which should go to community colleges, and the other half toward four-year colleges for research and technology. "The hope is for a matching fund program that attracts more federal dollars," said David Kinkade, a Hutchinson spokesman. "It's geared to be a long term investment in the job force."

Beebe wants to expand the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative, which helps offset tuition costs to adult learners at two-year colleges, to all of the state's community colleges. About half of the state's two-year colleges served adult learners through the program last year.  

Richard Hudson, vice chancellor for government and community relations at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said that both candidates have been champions of higher education. "They have both endorsed a bond measure that would give $150 million in construction money to the state's colleges and universities," he said. "Both have addressed the need for a bigger operating budget. Either one will be an excellent advocate."

California

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is largely running on his first-term education record  -- largely touting this year's freeze in tuition for the University of California and California State University systems and overall tuition drops at the state's community colleges, which the campaign said are the least expensive as a group in the country.

Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, is classifying the budget deal as short-sighted -- in a sense mortgaging the state's financial future -- and is proposing what he sees as a long-term plan for higher education.

The proposed California Hope Endowment, which he describes as a 21st century land grant, would transfer state-owned real estate (an asset that Angelides estimates is worth more than $5 billion) to a trust that would manage an endowment that would provide annual funds to expand the state's outreach and academic preparation programs to help "disadvantaged" students enter college. Angelides said the assets could yield more than $2 billion over the 10 years for the endowment.

Merritt said the endowment plan is, in effect, a direct response to Schwarzenegger's short-term actions this year -- even though Angelides' plan was articulated prior to the budget deal.

Affordability is a particularly hot issue in this gubernatorial campaign, given the increase in college costs and rapid growth of California's college-going population. In a recent report, the California Postsecondary Education Commission outlined the problems: a steady decline in state funding for higher education over the past 20 years, leading to a "sharp increase" in student fees that are often financed through increased borrowing.

The report singles out Cal Grants, state money given to low-income students, as being increasingly important given the economic realities of higher education. Angelides has made raising the income ceilings on Cal Grants -- from $69,600 to a family of four to $80,000 -- central to his higher education platform. He has also promised to roll back tuition costs to where they were before Schwarzenegger's term began.

Ensuring that tuition costs at the state's community colleges are the same across the board and expanding nurse training programs there remain at the top of Schwarzenegger's list, a campaign spokeswoman said.

The governor helped secure $1.5 billon for community college construction and $1.6 billion for UC and CSU construction during his first term, according to a campaign aide. Voters on November 7 will decide on California’s Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2006, or Proposition 1D, which would provide $10.4 billion in funds to improve and expand existing facilities in the public school, community college, University of California and California State systems. 

Iowa

In what has been the most expensive election in the state’s history, and one in which the incumbent, Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, decided not to seek re-election, many see this as a truly wide open race. Each candidate's higher education proposal indicates that keeping top high school students and college graduates in the state is a priority.

“Brain drain has been a problem here, and Vilsack hasn’t had success in addressing this,” Merritt said.

The "Iowans Learn & Earn College Program” proposed by U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle, a Republican, takes aim at low- and moderate-income students who are planning to remain in the state. Eligible students who attend an Iowa institution sign a contract promising to work in Iowa for at least seven years after graduation. During that time, the state would pay the students back for loans they took out.

"Many states in the Midwest find that kids go to school and want to go off to big cities," said Pete Jeffries, senior counsel to the Nussle campaign. "This way, they become taxpayers, and the program eventually pays for itself."

Nussle is also calling for increased "dual credit" opportunities for high school juniors and seniors -- so that courses they take in high school would qualify for college credit -- and for more job skills instruction in high schools that cater to students who aren't considering a four-year college.

Democrat Chet Culver, Iowa's secretary of state, wants to spend $3 million to bolster an existing program that allows every high school senior to earn up to a year of college credit that is good at any Iowa college. Taylor West, a campaign spokeswoman, said the program is one way to lower college costs for students by allowing them to graduate early or place out of introductory classes.

"By making it a smooth credit transfer, we encourage students to stay in Iowa for higher education or go on when they wouldn't have planned otherwise," Taylor said.

Culver is also calling for a need-based aid program that would provide 5,000 scholarships up to $5,000 to Iowa's high school students. It would pay for up to a year of college at a four-year "regents" university or two years of community college, and wouldn't be in place of an existing program for 13,000 students who attend the state's private colleges.

Nussle wants the state's legislators to be locked into setting a tuition rate for both the state's regent universities and its community colleges about 18 months in advance. Jeffries, the Nussle aide, said K-12 often receives early notice. The campaign is also promoting the "College Cost Guarantee," which would ensure that undergraduate tuition rates for all of Iowa's regent institutions and community colleges would not increase by more than the annual Higher Education Price Index.

Maryland

“From everything I’ve seen, accessibility is the key issue in this race,” said Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which handles postsecondary matters for the state's governor.

O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, is running on the platform that a college education is less attainable than it was four years ago, when Ehrlich took office. In-state undergraduate tuition has risen 16 percent over the past four years, a bit higher than inflation but not out of step with the rest of the country, according to William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Tuition at the flagship University of Maryland College Park has risen from $5,566 in the 2004 fiscal year to $6,566 in 2007 for in-state undergraduate students, and from $16,242 to $20,005 for out-of-state students.

O'Malley's campaign is quick to point out that Maryland earned an “F” in college affordability in “Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education.” Forty-two other states also received a flunking grade, and Maryland earned an A- in preparation, an A in participation and an A in benefits.

Ehrlich’s campaign touts the doubling of state need-based college scholarships in the past three years. The University System of Maryland this year increased its need-based financial aid by 30 percent this year as part of a statewide move away from merit aid.

The Ehrlich camp boasts that the University of Maryland system’s tuition has been frozen across the board for 2006-7, but O’Malley has called Ehrlich’s attention to higher education an election-year ploy.

“The mayor feels that there is an opportunity to leverage strengths to meet our state’s needs, such as a need to train more teachers, more nurses and increase scholarships for community college students tying into workforce development programs,” said Hari Sevugan, an O’Malley spokeswoman. The candidate has been criticized for the state of the Baltimore's public schools.

Kirwan said Ehrlich has been supportive of the need-based aid initiative and in the budget process the past several years, and that O'Malley has spoken out about holding down tuition increases, as well. "It seems clear that both support the direction we have taken," Kirwan said.

Merritt of the Education Commission of the States called the race a toss-up, saying that O’Malley may benefit from an anti-incumbent mood.

Wisconsin

It's not so much brain drain as outsider entry that has U.S. Rep. Mark Green, the Republican candidate, riled up in the race for the Wisconsin statehouse. As the University of Wisconsin at Madison has become more and more appealing to students from across the country, admission there has grown more competitive for in-state students -- too competitive, Green says.

"Wisconsin kids should be at the front of the line, and Mark Green will make sure that happens," said Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman for the campaign.

Margaret Lewis, associate vice president for government relations in the University of Wisconsin System, said the issue is sticky because out-of-state tuition, which was as much as four times that of in-state fees a few years back, was lowered at the same time that gradual increases were made to in-state costs.

Lewis said non-resident tuition had skyrocketed so much that the UW System's non-Madison campuses were missing out on millions of dollars of revenue from out-of-state students who stayed away because of costs.

"It's great that both candidates seem to be talking about access and affordability," Lewis said. "We've traditionally been a low-tuition, low-aid state, but tuition has crept up as there has been a reduction in state support for the university system."

Green wants to cap tuition at no greater than the rate of inflation -- which the state's Board of Regents has agreed to do in 2006-7 and 2007-8 -- and link increases in state financial aid to changes in the rate of tuition. He is also calling for a comprehensive audit of the UW System to tackle what he calls a lack of accountability for taxpayer dollars. The university has seen its share of recent controversy regarding administrative leadership.

Merritt said Green's call for an audit is part of an overall strategy of bringing up past issues. "The incumbent has had a contentious working relationship at best with the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Legislature -- good old-fashioned partisan politics," he said.

Incumbent Gov. Jim Doyle's higher education centerpiece is the Wisconsin Covenant, in which eighth grade students would sign a form stating that if they maintain a "B" average in high school, take college preparatory courses and stay out of trouble, they are guaranteed to receive from the state a financial aid package -- based on their parent's income -- for tuition at any of the state's public, private or technical institutions. The plan probably wouldn't be in place before 2011.

Lewis said the issue of stem cell research has factored prominently into the campaign: Green has called for state funding only of stem cell research that doesn't involve the destruction of embryos. Doyle supports all such research.

 

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