States Step Up With College Affordability, As Federal Policy Moves to Back Burner

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

For now, college affordability is taking a backseat to other issues demanding attention from the federal government. But across the country, state governors and legislatures are stepping up to find ways to bring college into reach for more students and families.

Over the last several months, nearly every state governor has mentioned higher education in his or her “State of the State” addresses, inaugural speeches, or budget proposals, with many focusing on the economic and workforce importance of higher education, as well as state funding, and affordability and tuition policies.  

“States have always been a significant player in higher education affordability,” says Tom Allison, deputy director of policy and research at Young Invincibles. “And at the same time, states as laboratories of democracy are always playing with innovative ideas. … States recognize the importance of affordable postsecondary education and the need to pick up where the federal government has left off.”

In Arkansas, for example, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, in his State of the State address proposed creating the ArFuture Grant program, which would use existing state funds to cover the cost of tuition and fees at state community or technical colleges for students who enroll in “high demand” fields. In return, the student would be required to work in Arkansas full-time for a minimum of three years after graduating.

And in Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback challenged colleges and universities to find a way to develop a $15,000 bachelor’s degree program.

“Capping the education of many Kansas students is a college degree. Yet, while many of our students possess the academic ability to attend college, the financial cost of a bachelor’s degree proves prohibitive,” he said in his address. “Kansans deserve access to an affordable college option. … While the challenge is great, the potential achievement is greater.”

Governors in other states – such as Hawaii, Kentucky, and Montana – have proposed creating or expanding dual enrollment and early college programs, which would allow students to earn college credit while still in high school. Meanwhile, other states – such as Indiana, Maine, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington – made plans to expand access to state financial aid, whether through grants, promise programs, or expanding or restructuring financial aid at the institutional level.

Some states are looking to address the college affordability issue from other angles, too, by tackling costs associated with attending college that aren’t covered in tuition and fees.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in September signed into law a piece of legislation that requires colleges and universities in the state to apply to participate in local food assistance programs, and establishes funding to support food pantries on campuses.

“That's the kind of innovation and explicit acknowledgement of affordability issues that Congress isn't addressing,” Allison says.

That sort of movement toward rethinking funding in a way to include food pantries comes at a time when the issue of food insecurity among students is gathering more attention. Just this month, Sara Goldrick-Rab and colleagues at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab released a report that showed one-third of community college students experiencing food or housing insecurity were already working and receiving financial aid.

While part of states’ increased action around college affordability could stem from a growing awareness of students’ needs, it also has to do with the current political climate. With federal funding for student aid programs at risk under President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, states might feel more pressure to take charge. Additionally, under a Clinton administration, Allison says, there might have also been more movement on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

“It’s certainly not a priority now,” he says. “I doubt we’d be debating health care. I doubt we’d be talking about a lot of these controversial issues. States have definitely stepped up with the acknowledgement that HEA was already delayed, and now it’s just delayed further. They’re going to have to do it on their own.”

Since the beginning of the 115th Congress, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has held two hearings focused on higher education, with the purpose of informing a future HEA reauthorization bill. Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, has repeatedly said that reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is a priority for the committee. But since the start of the new Congress, the Senate has been tied up with cabinet nominations, and the committee has been focused on health care issues.

But after a contentious hearing during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ confirmation process, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, said she felt the nomination was being jammed through, that the process was a “massive break” with a strong bipartisan record, and that it could hurt the committee’s ability to work together – or perhaps her own with Alexander – moving forward.

Alexander has also in the past signaled that such college affordability policies – such as tuition-free college – are more appropriate when they take place at the state level. His home state of Tennessee – “not exactly a bastion of liberal politics,” Allison says – was among the first to pave the way for free college proposals. To date, 23 states have introduced legislation related to free college.

“Politically, in states there’s a little bit less partisanship, a little less polarization,” Allison says. “We see Republicans and Democrats coming together on this issue. It is a nonpartisan issue, really. Providing an affordable, quality postsecondary education – that’s going to make the state stronger economically.”


Publication Date: 3/27/2017

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