Fixing Higher Ed, Legislator-Style

Report from panel of state lawmakers, the latest to critique American higher education, points the finger in an unusual direction: inward.
November 28, 2006

Higher education is in crisis, in large part because of government neglect, and states must take the lead in fixing the problems, a bipartisan group of state legislators says in a new report.

"Transforming Higher Education: National Imperative -- State Responsibility," the report from a 12-member special panel of the National Conference of State Legislators, in many ways falls in line with other recent studies that have identified concerns about access to and the performance of American colleges and universities, including the work of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."  

Like those reports, the legislators' study (a summary of which can be found here) cites statistics showing the United States slipping on international indicators, bemoans the effect that increasing tuitions and flattening financial aid have had on college access for low and middle income students and adult learners, and notes that those problems must be addressed if the country is to provide a meaningful future for the waves of educationally underprepared Americans preparing to slam into higher education and society.

But the report, which was nearly two years in the making, also differs from those and other reports in a few ways that make it noteworthy, several experts on state policy and higher education say.

First, it states the problems in stark terms -- much more pointed and more critical, in some ways, than the Spellings commission report that college officials criticized repeatedly for its negative tone. "The American higher education system is no longer the best in the world," the NSCL report states without equivocation. "Although the United States has some of the best institutions in the world, we do a poor job overall in our mass education production.... The American higher education system is not preparing students for the 21st century global society.... Faculty are content with the teaching methods of the past and are not changing as the world is changing."

Second, while college officials complained that the Spellings commission's report gave short shrift to the impact of declining state funds on higher education, in their report the legislators themselves take significant responsibility for the problems they identify.

State lawmakers, the report says, have set budgets "not in a logical or strategic manner, but in a reactive manner," often financing higher education with the leftovers after allocations are made to elementary and secondary schools, prisons and Medicaid. States have failed to set clear goals for colleges' performance, often giving higher education a "pass," and legislators -- who because of high turnover are often less knowledgeable about the issues than their predecessors of a generation or two ago -- have not made higher education policy making a priority.

"That's why we feel we were the ones to come forward" with solutions, said State Rep. Denise W. Merrill, who heads the Connecticut General Assembly's Appropriations Committee. "If we take action now, we think we can solve the crisis."

Few if any of the panel's 15 recommendations (a list of which appear below) sound particularly pathbreaking, and many of them seem like things -- defining clear state goals, holding institutions accountable for their performance, examining whether states are spending their money wisely -- that legislators would ideally already be doing. But in throwing their weight behind such goals as improving access for low income, minority and adult students, rethinking how student aid funds are distributed, and improving the productivity of American colleges -- recommendations that echo those of the Spellings commission and other recent studies -- the legislators are the latest important player to call for change.

"All of this rolls in the direction of decision makers starting to get on board with the idea that we need fixes that are more than just nibbling at the edges," said Travis Reindl, a longtime state higher education policy expert who now heads a project on college access and affordability at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group. Added Paul Lingenfelter: "It's a positive and very helpful action that a group of state legislators say clearly that states need to have an agenda for higher education, and that continuing on automatic pilot is a trajectory headed for a crash."

Some experts on state policy noted important omissions from the legislators' report. Edward P. St. John, a professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and co-author of Privatization and Public Universities (Indiana University Press), said he thought the study largely overlooks the failure of public higher education (and of state and federal policy) to confront "the inequality issue:" the inability of educationally able poor students to pay rising tuition costs, which was the subject of a recent report by the Education Trust.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, who as head of higher education's chief lobbying group declined to sign the Spellings commission's report, applauded the NCSL report's central call for state legislators, working with college officials and the federal government, to "seize the opportunity to lead the higher education reform movement in the states." He said his only significant concern about the legislators' report was its silence on the question of whether states can fulfill all of their obligations, including to public higher education, while maintaining the "low tax, high growth" approach to state economics that is in vogue now.

Ward said he was also intrigued, though not surprised, by the final paragraph of the NCSL report, in which the panel of legislators seemed to urge Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to tread lightly in the months to come as she carries out the work of the federal commission that she appointed, which in multiple places suggested an expanded role for the department in ensuring higher education accountability. "[S]tate legislators cannot afford to let the federal government define the higher education agenda," the NSCL report concludes. "We must all work together to design the higher education system we want and need for the future. However, states must take the initiative to decide for themselves how higher education contributes to state goals, and the policy, funding and accountability mechanisms that will support that system and assert their role to remain firmly at the center of the design and development of higher education policy."

Charles Miller, a former University of Texas regent chairman who headed the Spellings commission, called the NSCL report a "parallel piece" to the commission's work and said it largely echoed his commission's desire to "send signals to the higher education community that something needs to be done." Miller said he agreed with the NSCL report's conclusion that as much as possible should be done at the state level. "I understand that, and I'm glad that the states want to take more responsibility -- they should."

The Spellings panel's report did not, Miller said, argue that "we need the federal government determining how public higher ed should function." What the federal panel did say, Miller said, was that "we need to get changes in how [higher education] functions, or we will" get more of a federal role.

The NCSL Commission's Recommendations:

1. Define clear state goals: States need long-term priorities and a public agenda for higher education that links higher ed to overall state economic goals.

2. Identify your state’s strengths and weaknesses: Legislators need to carefully study and examine where the leaks are in the student pipeline.

3. Know your state’s demographic trends for the next 10 to 30 years: Legislators cannot begin to articulate meaningful goals for state higher education systems without good information about upcoming population changes.

4. Identify a place or structure to sustain the public agenda: Setting state goals is not a one-time thing. States should find an appropriate place to house ongoing, statewide discussions about how well the system is performing.

5. Hold institutions accountable for their performance:  Once clear statewide goals are set, legislators can better hold institutions accountable for their performance.

6. Rethink Funding: Over the years, states have reduced their share of overall higher education costs, and as a result, the share of costs for students, families and institutions has gone up. Some states may decide to spend more money. All states need to spend money more wisely.

7. Rethink student aid: States should examine their merit- and need-based financial aid programs to ensure that they are well balanced, reward students who are efficient, and help adults and part-time students.

8. Help reduce borrowing and debt: Two out of three students graduate with debt, and the average debt is $17,250. Ten years ago, it was $8,000, adjusted for inflation. Legislators must find a way to reduce this drain on the state economy.

9. Recommit to access: States can make college more affordable. They can also see that courses are offered at varied hours, such as in the evenings. And they can make sure a variety of low-cost options like technical schools and community colleges are available.

10. Recommit to success: Ensuring that students get into college is only half the battle. States should also ensure that students graduate. 

11. Embrace innovation: Legislators should encourage innovation within the entire state higher education community—including public schools, private schools, and the for-profit sector. 

12. Encourage partnerships: Legislators can help communication with business and with K-12 to better articulate expectations and outcomes.

13. Transform the 12th grade: Dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment and early college programs can all help prepare students for college and finish faster.

14. Don’t neglect adult learners: Adults going back to school now represent 40 percent of the student population. They have different needs than traditional students.

15. Focus on productivity: Legislators should ensure that state dollars are spent productively and should demand that institutions become more efficient.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top