The top higher ed issues of 2017, according to state legislatures

Return on education is a key priority for state governments, Pat Donachie writes for Education Dive.

In recent years, declining state revenues and a focus on other public policy issues has made higher education funding a challenge, according to Dustin Weedin, a senior policy analyst at a recent webinar co-hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Other co-hosts included the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

But despite budgetary issues, colleges and legislatures still have to work together to tackle some of the pressing issues facing today's students, Pat Donachie writes. Here are the higher ed issues that state legislatures are focused on during the 2017-2018 school year:

Workforce development

Neal Holly, the assistant director of the Workforce Development Institute at ECS, notes that workforce development has driven some of the more successful financial aid efforts, including the free tuition movement sweeping across the country. As an example of a more targeted allocation, Holly points to the governor of Florida's approval of $85 million for job training programs at local public colleges. Workforce development will continue to be an area of interest for state legislatures and other branches of state government, he argues.

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While the previous year has seen some of the lowest tuition increases since the recession, colleges have been increasingly negotiating with legislatures to keep tuition low in exchange for funding for subsequent years, according to Dylan Opalich, an assistant director of state relations and policy analysis with the AASCU. Keeping tuition as low as possible while at the same time keeping it out of political deals, if possible, will be key for colleges in the coming year, he says.

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DACA students

States are taking a mixed approach to the issue of undocumented students, according to Tom Harnisch, the director of state relations for the AASCU. He points out that seven states have considered legislation that would forbid colleges from declaring themselves to be sanctuary campuses. However, eighteen states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and other states have informally discussed similar measures.

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Free speech

The past year has been filled with debates and legislative actions related to free speech on college campuses, Donachie writes. In one example, North Carolina drafted a bill that prohibited the state's colleges from creating free speech zones, he reports. Donachie argues that institutions in other states can expect their state lawmakers to continue voicing concerns, and he suggests colleges should be ready for legislation that could potentially take away some of their autonomy on the issue (Donachie, Education Dive, 9/29).

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