Resetting the Relationship Between States and Public Higher Education

At stake is our collective ability to maintain college affordability and to maximize the transformative effect that America's public colleges and universities have on individuals' lives and on the very economic and social fabric of our communities, states, and nation.
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Many factors drive states' economies and are vital to ensuring future prosperity. No asset, however, is more powerful than that of a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce. Human talent trumps everything else: climate, culture, and yes, tax rates.

Public two- and four-year universities are the dominant engines that power the American workforce. These institutions are the gateways through which pass our next generation of workers, our future middle class, and active participants in a vibrant democracy. Yet we are all too familiar with much of the narrative in higher education as of late: increasing tuition prices driven by decreasing state investment in public higher education, and with it, spiraling student debt.

Despite the link between workforce talent and state economic capacity-building, public higher education has been deprioritized as a state investment priority. In the past quarter century, state higher education funding per full-time equivalent student has declined 35 percent; as a share of states' general fund budgets by 16 percent; and per $1,000 of personal income by 37 percent, while full-time student enrollment has grown by 62 percent.

This disinvestment has come at a time when demand for skilled workers continues to soar. Two-thirds of the 55 million job openings in the U.S. economy through 2020 will require some college or a postsecondary degree, according to the latest forecast by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. Factor in sweeping demographic changes in which our future workforce will be comprised of much greater numbers of individuals from minority and lower-income backgrounds, and who have not enrolled in and completed college at levels comparable to the college populations of generations past, and it is evident that our states and the nation are at the precipice of a crisis. At stake is our ability to compete in an ever-increasing interconnected global economy.

While many stakeholders play a role in financing a public college education -- the federal government, institutions, students and families, and the philanthropic community -- state governments continue to serve as the central foundation from which higher education is financed. Therefore, the roles and relationships involving state political leaders and higher education leaders are especially critical to ensuring college affordability, boosting degree production, and strengthening our workforces. Recognizing this, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) created a task force to recommend strategies for strengthening the relationship between state government and public colleges and universities, and to identify strategies for advancing higher education as a state investment priority.

The task force examined the current context through a decidedly political framework, recognizing that the U.S. faces a paradox in which state policymakers' rhetorical support for public higher education has not been followed by the state funding required to keep college affordable. Failure to reverse this trend will lead to a continued state-to-student cost shift that will increasingly jeopardize college affordability, as well as the aspirations of millions of people to join the American middle-class and, ultimately, our nation's economic competitiveness.

The outcome of the task force's deliberations: an urgent call for a new compact between states and public higher education that represents a shared commitment to broaden college access, make college more affordable, improve student outcomes and ensure academic quality. The compact must begin with a candid state-level conversation about the needs and expectations of both state policymakers and higher education leaders. And it must be crafted collaboratively and predicated on mutual understanding and trust.

State lawmakers and college officials must play leadership roles in establishing a new partnership. For higher education leaders, it begins with making several commitments integral to garnering the trust of policymakers and the public. These include: making institutional accountability the foundation of a new compact; building an institutional agenda linked to state needs; addressing college affordability concerns; and doing a better job of conveying institutional outcomes. Establishing a new compact will require dedication to these obligations as well as an equal commitment by state policymakers to provide consistent and sustained financial investment and support for the policy needed to achieve shared state goals.

We must spark a more urgent dialogue on how the alliance between states and their public higher education institutions can be strengthened. At stake is our collective ability to maintain college affordability and to maximize the transformative effect that America's public colleges and universities have on individuals' lives and on the very economic and social fabric of our communities, states, and nation.

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