Education may be a key issue in several states’ elections this fall, but referendums related to higher education are thin this political season.
There are significant proposals in North Dakota, Oregon and Georgia, but the other five ballot measures that are tied directly to colleges and universities would have relatively minor effects.
Two of this year’s biggest potential changes for higher education were placed on state ballots by largely one-party efforts, a reflection of today’s strongly partisan politics. In North Dakota, not a single Democrat in the House or the Senate voted for a proposal to change the composition of the board that oversees the state’s university system. And in Oregon, nearly every “nay” on a proposal to create a state endowment for financial aid came from the Republican side of the aisle.
In Georgia’s legislature, on the other hand, most Republican and Democratic lawmakers are behind an idea to privatize dorms within the state's university system. The project hinges on the creation of a tax exemption on the ballot in November.
Some higher education officials also have their eyes on bids to raise the minimum wage in five states, which could drive up the budgets of colleges that pay current minimum wage to many employees.
Over all, though, the slate for higher education is light this year, said Daniel J. Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Universities and Colleges.
“I don’t mean to dismiss any of them, but to me, there’s nothing terribly significant that stands out,” he said.
That’s despite a considerable collection of education-related measures relating to K-12 issues, ranging from teacher evaluations to class sizes to alternative funding sources for public schools.
Here’s a roundup of the higher education ballot measures that voters will weigh in on next month:
Some higher education observers fear that a proposal to shift the way North Dakota’s higher education institutions are governed would reduce transparency. Students, too, have complained about Measure 3, which would remove their official representation from the body that oversees the state’s colleges and universities.
North Dakota’s 11 public state universities and colleges are directed by eight volunteer members appointed by the governor to the State Board of Higher Education, and the system is run by a chancellor.
Measure 3 would change the constitution to replace that structure with three full-time, paid members of a commission, who would be appointed to four-year terms by the governor (and subject to Senate confirmation). The new structure would take effect July 1.
Whether the measure would do away with a politicized process or create one that’s more political depends whom you ask.
Supporters of the bill argue that it will modernize the system and improve efficiency.
Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said that in his 22 years in the state legislature, there has always been a tense relationship between the legislature and the board of higher education, and that tension has only grown worse. Grindberg was a co-sponsor of the bill that's now on the ballot.
As examples of times the legislature has second-guessed the board, he pointed to controversies over rescinding the University of North Dakota’s nickname and logo and the board’s handling of former chancellor Hamid Shirvani, who was widely criticized by some campus and political leaders.
“They’re not visionary leaders challenging the status quo,” Grindberg said of the board members. “Their environment just doesn’t foster that.”
Grindberg also noted that the process for appointing commissioners would be similar to the process that’s in place now for appointing board members, and that the commission could create a an advisory board to receive student and faculty input.
He doubts that the changes would put the accreditation of North Dakota’s colleges in jeopardy, as warned in a report by the Higher Learning Commission, a Midwest college accrediting organization.
The report questions whether the new commission would have autonomy from the legislature, and says that there are several unanswered questions about how the new commission would function if the amendment were to pass. The university system would have a lot of work to do in a few months to prove that this new structure would meet the commission's standards for accreditation, the group said.
In addition to the Higher Learning Commission, the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (AGB) also opposes the idea, and urged residents to vote "no" in a recent opinion piece written by the group’s president, Richard Legon. The change would undermine the checks and balances that are in place now by turning higher education administration into another state government agency, Legon wrote.
Richard Novak, a fellow at AGB, said about two-thirds of public universities are in a system such as North Dakota's, and the majority of them are overseen by boards ranging from 8 to 15 members.
“Having three people oversee 11 institutions is just impossible,” he said. “If they want to create an accountable, transparent system, this isn’t the way to do it.”
This week, a group of legislators, citizens and civic leaders also formed to oppose the measure.
The debate over the high cost of a college degree is in full swing in Oregon, a state that ranks low in its support for higher education and where tuition and fees rank above the national average.
As a solution, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, has pushed for more funding for higher education through the creation of a statewide endowment, with interest from a fund used for student assistance. Supporters of the amendment, named Measure 86, call it the Oregon Opportunity Initiative.
Wheeler has said in interviews about his proposal that if the state doesn’t find a fix, higher education will be out of reach for the majority of Oregonians.
The constitutional amendment would require the state to create the fund and would allow the state to take on debt through the sale of bonds to fund the account. Exactly where the money for the endowment will come from is still undetermined, but it could include a mix of bonds, stock investments or private donations.
According to data on Wheeler’s website, each $100 million that’s put into the fund will create a $5 million pot of money for financial aid for students, including those in vocational programs. The money in the fund could be earmarked for students pursuing careers in fields that are high-paying or in high demand, such as STEM fields, Wheeler said.
But Steve Buckstein argues there are better ways to solve the cost of higher education than having taxpayers subsidize it. Buckstein is founder and executive director of the libertarian think tank Cascade Policy Institute, which has recommended that residents vote against the amendment.
A lot of voters don’t understand that if the state takes out bonds to start the fund, those will be repaid not through the investment returns, but through the state’s general funds, Buckstein said. The amendment states that all investment earnings must be used for student assistance.
Buckstein doesn’t think it's a smart idea for taxpayers to take on long-term debt when there’s no proof that the state’s economy will benefit from more residents having college degrees.
“Nothing in [the amendment] says who will choose which students will receive what,” Buckstein said. “Will it be based on need, academics, for community colleges or STEM fields? That leaves it up to the same lobbying for university funds that we see today.”
The state legislature allocates roughly $50 million per year to providing financial assistant through the Oregon Opportunity Grant. Legislators could increase that amount instead, he said.
Most Georgia legislators are hoping voters will back their plan to privatize dormitories within the University System of Georgia, a move they say will benefit students by modernizing the dorms and save taxpayers money by outsourcing the management of residence halls.
This November’s ballot contains an important detail for making the plan work. Referendum 1 would amend the state constitution to extend a public property tax exemptiont to the private companies that would operate the dorms. The companies would have contracts to serve the colleges within the university system.
The lease agreements would promise revenue from student rent and in return, the private companies would absorb any outstanding debt and maintain the buildings.
Georgia’s university system isn’t the first to privatize dorms, but it would be one of the largest.
Voters in five states – Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota – will see proposals related to raising the minimum wage in their state this November, after a handful of states approved similar measures last year.
Higher education officials in two of those states say that if the new minimum wage laws do go into effect, they will influence college budgets and their ability to employ student workers.
In Illinois, the question of whether to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10 an hour is only advisory, but Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and his supporters have pushed for an increase.
While the Illinois State Board of Higher Education supports paying employees a livable wage, a wage increase would add to colleges’ budgets without bringing in additional revenue, said Alan Phillips, executive deputy director of planning and budgeting for the board.
At Southern Illinois University’s two campuses, for example, the proposed increase would add an estimated $3.2 million to the university’s payroll. And at Illinois State University, there’s an estimated cost increase of $1.6 million for the 4,200 student workers who are earning minimum wage.
That means administrators would likely have to increase tuition or fees to make up for that money, or reduce the number of students employed on campus.
Monte Kramer, vice president of finance and administration for the South Dakota Board of Regents, also said it is likely campuses there would have to cut back on student labor if a measure to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 passes.
Representatives from the other three states higher education systems said there either hadn’t been any discussion of the issue or that the effect would be minimal on most campuses.
- Voters in Rhode Island will weigh in on a $125 million bond to rebuild the engineering facilities at the University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus. This year’s bond, in combination with a $25 million bond referendum planned for next year, makes up the most expensive university infrastructure project Rhode Island voters have seen in about 60 years, according to The Providence Journal.
- Maine residents will vote on an $8 million bond to build a new laboratory for animal and plant disease control. The new facilities, administered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, would allow for tests on insects and pests that plague plants and animals in Maine.
- New Mexico voters will decide whether to alter the composition of the Board of Regents at Northern New Mexico College by filling one of the positions with a student.
- In Oregon, Measure 87 would allow state judges to be paid for teaching service at public colleges.
- A constitutional amendment in Wyoming would let the governor appoint people living outside of the state to serve as trustees of the University of Wyoming. Supports say the change would allow alumni of the university who’ve left the state to sit on the board.
- Two states and the District of Columbia have referendums about legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. In Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. residents over 21 could possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Colleges and universities that receive federal money are still required to ban drugs on campus.