Higher Ed Act Reauthorization

Ensuring That States Support Higher Ed

As summer reaches its mid-point, selected high ranking U.S. House and Senate members continue to work on finalizing massive legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, which has already gone through seven extensions this year. One of the few primary issues still being debated is the “State Commitment to Affordable College Education Amendment,” commonly known as the “Maintenance of Effort” provision. The provision seeks to hold states accountable for maintaining certain levels of tax support for higher education, and I believe it is essential for the future of public higher education.

The maintenance of effort provision, which was advanced by Rep. George Miller of California, Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts and supported by members of both parties on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, is premised on the fact that the most significant factor impacting the rapidly rising cost of college education for nearly 80 percent of the higher education population has been the relentless decline in commitment on the part of most state governments to maintain requisite levels of public funding. The result of this long-term decreasing commitment has been that in many states, as state appropriations have dwindled, public university tuition and fees have skyrocketed. This trend has effectively shifted the burden of funding higher education from the general public to the student.

What Representatives Miller, Tierney and other bipartisan members of the House Education and Labor Committee have figured out is that billions in new student aid dollars will have little effect on the expansion of educational opportunity if state legislatures continue to consistently reduce their fiscal commitment to higher education. Essentially, MOE is a first step in holding states accountable for retaining given levels of appropriations for their own students. The perversity of the present system is that as state legislatures lower their fiscal effort or do not provide adequate support for increasing student populations, tuitions and fees subsequently rise, and as a result most federal student aid programs are tapped at higher levels further indebting ever more students and with greater average debt.

Many state officials have become savvy about the process. In fact, I was told by a very high ranking member of the state legislature in Kentucky a couple of years ago that he did not need to provide additional tax support for public universities since the institutions themselves had the ability to increase their own student tuition and acquire the funds through the federal tuition-based aid programs. This “supplanting” of state support with federal tuition-based program support occurs more readily when state economies are bad or simply when legislators, by whim or fancy, refuse to provide the appropriate levels of public tax support, knowing full well that public universities will in response raise student tuition and fees to provide essential funds.

As a consequence, additional fiscal burdens are placed directly on students and indirectly on the federal government to offset what states fail to provide. This has been a pattern over the last three decades as increases in state legislative appropriations have been unreliable and state institutions are sent scrambling for needed revenues. The maintenance of effort provision has the potential to place pressure, through the secretary of education, to better stabilize state appropriations by means of federal disincentives through the use of Leveraging Educational Assistance Program funds and other programs, or incentives when new federal funds are made available in the future.

Supporters of the MOE provision include the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents the majority of public universities nationwide, and numerous national student organizations. Opposition to the inclusion of the MOE Amendment is spearheaded by the National Governors Association and Council of State Governments, who have the obvious interest in seeing that billions in funding should continue to flow freely without strings. This no-strings approach is, of course, extremely attractive to states that continue to reduce their commitment to public higher education by shifting the financial responsibility away from themselves.

Strong opposition also resonates from the “states’ rights” element that insists that the federal government should not have such fiscal leverage over states. Leading this charge is Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who as U.S. secretary of education favored the elimination of the Department of Education and represents a state that is constantly last, or near last, among the 50 states in its tax effort to support public education at virtually all levels.

Legislators, such as Senator Alexander, who argue that states should receive federal funding without a corresponding fiscal commitment to higher education actually perceive that this anti-state tax effort strategy is good public policy. Unfortunately, in this system, the students are the ultimate losers as college affordability declines and federal direct student aid dollars are increasingly rendered less effective.

Many opponents of this amendment also insist that the MOE provision is precedent setting and represents a new dimension of federal encroachment in state sovereignty. In fact, concerns about the federal government holding states fiscally accountable is not new and has been a staple of education and welfare legislation for many decades. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act carried with it a maintenance of effort provision that forbade states to supplant their own funding with federal dollars. Over the last four decades, these supplanting provisions have been upheld and enforced by federal courts on numerous occasions. Medicaid, and other federal funding measures operate in similar fashion making it difficult for state legislatures to cut funding without federal fiscal consequences.

In summary, maintenance of effort is an essential component for ensuring that states are held accountable for their funding of higher education. This amendment, if used effectively by blending both fiscal disincentives and incentives, will make states think twice before cutting higher education appropriations and should have an attendant effect of better stabilizing state higher education finding. The true winners will be, of course, the students, but in the broader context the spillover beneficiaries from state fiscal stabilization and enhancements to higher education will be the entire social and economic system.

Author/s: 
F. King Alexander
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

F. King Alexander is president of California State University at Long Beach.

A Crowning Indignity

At one time a faculty was viewed as more than just a group of teachers. Faculty members were the essence of a college or university. They set the intellectual tone of the school, and as a result, the institutional agenda was centered on ideas, learning, values and bringing students into the realm of the mind.

A college education was once intended to bring about a comprehensive transformation of the entering high school graduate, yielding an incipient scholar four years later. Students at a college were expected to absorb its culture and attitude and identify, however subliminally, with its mission. Those majoring in a department established a sense of identity with the field, and professors exhibited a sense of responsibility for their welfare and progress. Even in larger institutions, majors were viewed as individuals, and sometime as colleagues, not just numbers. Full time faculty members became advisers, confidants, and sometimes, friends.

It's different now. In many institutions the faculty is viewed as another cost center, to be judged in terms of "productivity," rather than as the reason students come to the college.

People seem quite enthusiastic about the further savings that can be squeezed out of this cost center. Writing articles suggesting eliminating tenure, laying off faculty, increasing class size, and replacing full timers with adjuncts has become the new cottage industry.

Yes, a full professor teaching an advanced seminar to a group of 10 students is very expensive. But didn't we benefit from this relaxed, thoughtful and expensive kind of learning?

Are we ready to deny it to the vast number of students from a different demographic who are first appearing on our campuses? If we are serious about access, shouldn't we be prepared to pay for it?

The adjunct, often without office quarters, and with a heavy travel schedule associated with multi-campus commitments, rarely has time for this intellectual hand holding. S/he has been hired to teach a course, and as hard working as s/he is, as dedicated and caring -- the outcomes are simply not what they would be were the same individual to be hired on a tenure track.

By now, about half of America's full-time, tenured faculty has been replaced with adjuncts. There is an immense cost savings inherent in this, but the change speaks to something far more fundamental than cost. Everyone seems to agree, yet the replacement process grinds on.

The next instance of injury to the status and role of faculty takes place at the policy making council of most colleges. The nature and number of areas that appear on a college president's agenda is large and growing. Richard Vedder reports that "the number of non-teaching professional staff has doubled in relation to enrollment over the past generation. Universities have added scores of public relations specialists, wellness coordinators, diversity czars, international program administrators, assistant deans, associate provosts, and the like" and concludes that "some paring of the bureaucratic army will become necessary" in the months and years ahead, given budget realities. I'm not so sure.

The complexity of today's university ensures that there will be many voices clamoring for attention. Maintenance, security, human resources, development, must all be heard. The lights must go on and students must be safe. Student placement, housing, the registrar and all of the other necessary centers of activity in a postsecondary school are not likely to disappear. The result is that the voice of faculty, of scholarship, of ideas is necessarily muted at the decision making administrative levels, and the tenured voices calling for a more rigorous curriculum, or modifications (and extra costs) associated with an exploding knowledge base become more remote.

In many colleges, the thought that a faculty member might pick up the phone and exchange ideas with the president would be viewed as quaint. The passion, the concern, the stimulating ideas, and the debates regarding content and curriculum, now take place at a level far below the decision making.

The irony is that without the Sage on the Stage, students would simply sit home. There are enough books and online courses to provide every student with the knowledge needed to earn a degree on his/her own. Yet the young people keep coming, filling up our classrooms, competing for good seats -- and not because the student center's food is excellent, or because the counseling center is competent and concerned. The voice of faculty members, of learning and scholarship, is as essential to the school as ever. But it is being drowned out.

The crowning indignity for professors was the publication in the Federal Register of the list of constituencies identified by the U.S. Department of Education as "having interests that are significantly affected by the subject matter of the negotiated rulemaking process" for carrying out the revisions Congress made last year in the Higher Education Act. Over 30 different categories are listed, encompassing everyone -- except the faculty.

There is no point entering a debate as to which of the 30 groups are as relevant to the discussions as professors. Nor does it help that some of the participants will also happen to have faculty rank at a postsecondary institution.

Regulations will be promulgated in the absence of the English professor who knows, first hand, how a regulation will play out in a classroom of first generation English speakers. Or the biology professor who knows what "cost saving" could mean to the effective teaching of a laboratory course. There will be no voices pressing the case for the liberal arts, for critical thinking skills, for the education of a perceptive, thinking citizenry, and no first-hand advocates for graduate education and the need to replace an aging professoriate.

Who will help create a sense of balance in the discussions so that an occupational mindset does not capture the thinking of all concerned?

Every change, every nuance, every new regulation will play itself out, in one way or another, in the classroom. And if the process doesn't benefit from the passion and presence of classroom faculty, it is at risk of being flawed.

Omitting faculty from the list was surely an oversight. At the same time, someone might want to jot down a reminder for negotiated rulemaking in 2015, when the Higher Education Act will next be reauthorized: Even if only for appearances' sake, "faculty" should be added to the list of people interested in education.

Author/s: 
Bernard Fryshman
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.

Variable Rate for Loan Consolidation 'Viable,' GAO Says

Smart Title: 

The Education Department's proposal to start charging a variable interest rate instead of a fixed, low rate to borrowers who combine multiple federal student loans into one is a "viable option for reducing federal costs" in student loan programs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a February letter to Republican lawmakers, who had requested the review.

Credit Check

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Rep. John Boehner told a group of college presidents Tuesday that members of Congress are tired of hearing from constituents who can't figure out why their children can't transfer credit from one institution to another.

"We hear about it nonstop," Boehner (R-Ohio) said. He said that both of his daughters were "caught up" in the issue, thinking that they were taking courses that would transfer -- only to find out that wasn't the case.

2004 Reauthorization, Take Two

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House Republicans unveiled their proposals for renewing the law that governs federal financial aid programs, which mirror the bill introduced last year.

Expanding Access Via Distance Ed

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Enrollments have boomed in an experimental federal program. But does that mean financial aid rules should be eased for online providers?

Movement in the Senate

Smart Title: 

A flurry of activity suggests Congress may make progress on extending the Higher Education Act after all.

Playing Defense and Offense

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Leaders of the AFT's college unions plan opposition to David Horowitz, cooperation with the NEA, and new organizing efforts.

Pressure on College Prices

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At a Congressional hearing, debate about whether federal aid drives tuition higher, and warnings for colleges.

Assessing College 'Access and Accountability'

Smart Title: 

The numbers are bleak and -- for anyone who cares about the vibrancy of the American economy or the importance of an educated citizenry -- deeply worrisome: the United States has fallen to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 7th in college-going rates, and is the only industrialized country whose rates are falling.

And perhaps most troubling of all, the rates are lowest among those segments of the American populace that are growing the fastest.

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