Outcomes, affordability top list of higher ed policy priorities for 2016

Addressing campus sexual assault also on lawmakers' minds

Higher education reform is poised to be a high priority at the state level in 2016, according to a new report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) that identifies the top ten policy trends for the year.

In a policy brief, Thomas Harnisch and Kati Lebioda write that although many presidential candidates are putting forward reform proposals and high-profile issues like sexual assault remain top priorities, the most significant higher education policy initiatives will come at the state level in the near term.

Analyzing previous policy actions, trends in the news, gubernatorial statements, and economic forecasts, Harnisch and Lebioda name the 10 policy issues they expect will garner the most attention from state governments this year.

Policy priorities in 2016

1. Keeping college affordable: As in previous years, the state appropriations discussion will likely focus on curbing tuition growth and limiting student debt, say the researchers. While states have modestly increased funding for higher education in recent years, limited revenue growth and "conservative approaches to state spending" make it less likely higher education funding will rise significantly in 2016, according to the brief. Meanwhile, some critics worry the recent focus on affordability has come at the expense of access and quality, which could put some recent initiatives under legislative scrutiny.

2. Focusing on outcomes: States will likely continue to push reforms that measure institutional outcomes, including degree production and completion rates. For instance, 32 states currently use performance-based funding in some form, and Harnish and Lebioda expect more states to consider implementing performance-based funding in 2016.

Expert insight: How one university used bonus funding to incorporate state performance targets into their budget model

3. Reducing sexual assault: Sexual assault prevention and related issues are now a top priority at both the state and federal level. More than 26 states are considering legislation to address sexual assault in 2015—up from six in 2014. Many proposals include provisions related to affirmative consent, reporting requirements, on-campus resources, and policies for interacting with law enforcement. However, Harnisch and Lebioda note that many states only debated sexual assault policies in 2015, without taking any further action.

4. Economic development: Heading into the 2016 election cycle, many state policymakers are likely to frame industry reform as a way to meet workforce needs and increase economic growth, the brief says. While nationwide unemployment is relatively low, many state lawmakers are interested in programs that can raise wages, make it easier for businesses to find qualified workers, and ease graduates' transition into the labor market.

5. Building uniform standards: The push to implement Common Core State Standards in K-12 education encountered significant backlash in 2015. In part, the standards are meant to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college-level work. But dozens of states proposed legislation last year rolling back Common Core. According to Harnisch and Lebioda, those efforts are likely to continue in 2016, which could affect the academic preparation of students applying to college.

6. Serving undocumented students: Policy on how much access to provide undocumented students varies widely from state to state—and the debate will continue in 2016, Harnisch and Lebioda predict. Meanwhile, there are several pending court cases regarding whether a federal rule that gives "lawful presence" to certain undocumented immigrants allows those individuals to qualify for in-state tuition. 

Undocumented students succeed despite daunting challenges

7. Guns on campus: Harnish and Lebioda expect several states to continue debating laws that would force public colleges and universities to allow guns on campus. While most such bills failed in 2015, some—such as Texas' campus carry legislation—were successful. Lawmakers in several states, including Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee, have filed similar bills for consideration in 2016. The AASCU "strongly opposes any effort to strip campus governing boards of their authority to regulate guns," Harnisch and Lebioda write.

8. Veterans' issues: Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act in 2014, requiring states to extend in-state tuition and other benefits to veterans regardless of their residency status or lose access to GI Bill funds. Harnish and Lebioda predict that efforts to support veterans in higher education are likely to continue in the coming year.

9. Free community college: Tennessee was the first state to offer free community college in 2014. Since then, Oregon and Minnesota have passed similar measures, and presidential candidates have similar programs at the federal level. However, AASCU joins other groups in concern that some programs and proposals would provide financial aid to students who may not need it at the expense of those who do, according to the brief.

10. Student debt: The mountain of educational loan debt facing students and graduates was a hot topic last year. In 2015, eight states passed laws aiming to alleviate student debt and Harnish and Lebioda expect more states to follow in 2016 (Harnisch/Lebioda, AASCU report, accessed 1/25).

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