Funding Higher Education as a Common Purpose

Last week the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEOO) released its annual report on the state of higher education finances. It shows that spending has increased moderately at the state and local levels and on a per capita student basis.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Kelderman notes that the report demonstrates the impact that "the long shadow of the Great Recession has cast over public higher education." He further determines that "beneath the national figures are wide variations in both increases and cuts in state money for public colleges, and evidence that many states have taken up what looks like a permanent residence at the bottom of the list."

While the report shows mixed results, there is some good news. Forty states have increased spending, representing a 5.2 percent increase from the previous year. This is the third consecutive annual increase in per-student appropriations, augmented by almost a 2 percent decrease in the number of full-time equivalent students since 2010. More generally, enrollment is still almost nine percent higher than it was before the Great Recession, matched by healthy increases in the number of students earning degrees and new credentials.

There is bad news. While state spending has increased, it is still 15 percent less per student than before the economic slowdown. Only five states are spending more per student than they were in 2008. In 22 states, tuition accounts for more than half of the per student revenues at public colleges.

It's important to set the SHEOO finding in context. Most sectors of the American economy that receive state and federal support took a funding hit as the economy tanked and subsequently sputtered along. In an important way, however, the story is not really about funding. It's more a chilling tale of the failure of current planning to match better to state and federal economic, social and cultural priorities.

Is America still able to draw a line in the sand to lay continuing claim that it produces well-educated citizens who form the best and most productive workforce in the global economy?

If you follow the money, the answer is "no." The current crop of political candidates seems to argue that fundamental questions of income inequality and college affordability can be solved by new programs like free public community college tuition. It's an "ice cream for everyone" moment determined by anecdote and polling.

The problem is that we need to move beyond what polling can tell us. We must imagine how to use oversight and funding to shape an American future that produces better coherence, consistency and predictability.

It starts with an understanding of the complexity of American higher education. And the principle should be "do no damage." Vice President Biden was right when he argued recently that America was still a place where great things can get done. But it's unwise to propose a band-aid solution when research, like the SHEOO annual study, suggests that complex funding strategies at the state and federal level are now at best incremental changes that support the cultural inertia built on the status quo.

If a well-educated citizenry and workforce is a national priority, it should be funded accordingly. If America is going to educate a global workforce, it must figure out a better way to fund a decentralized higher education system already under stress without wrecking it. It's less about winners and losers and more about how the chaos of scattered puzzle pieces fit together into a comprehensive plan.

Part of the puzzle is to determine how to fund higher education better, including public higher education. Make no mistake about it. America's colleges and universities - public and private and at all levels - must be accountable. But the solution is bigger than whether to use the carrot or the stick.

It's about how best to change incremental funding at the state and federal levels into a longer-term investment strategy. This will require cooperation at all levels, including better definition at the state and federal levels as to what each other's funding responsibilities should be.

There's a lesson to be taken from the mindset that shapes much of the public campaigns defining cutting edge health research on disease. It's almost a square-jawed, teeth-clenching determination to beat whatever horrific cancer is under study. In a sense, it's kind of a "Manhattan Project" approach. Higher education needs to make the same case as global labor force changes shape new needs.

Federal and state officials can be criticized for a bureaucratic, baby step response to the funding of American higher education. Funding on an annual appropriations cycle ignores critical data, good and imaginative ideas, and the capacity of governments working together to invest in the future of their citizens. A sound investment strategy requires broad sustainable cooperation between local, state and federal governments based upon research and a prioritized set of national education goals that do no harm while doing good.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, can state and federal officials in both the executive and legislative branches do more to break the debilitating political dysfunction by choosing common goals - like higher education - that the American people will support? It might make for a different political debate the next time we prepare to elect a president.