For the first time since the American Association of State Colleges and Universities started tracking the top state concerns impacting higher education 11 years ago, changes to federal policy tops the list. Specifically, concerns about how the federal tax bill will put pressure on state revenue, and by extension, higher education funding, abound.
In addition to concerns about the tax bill’s implications, leaders are also keeping an eye on how potential Higher Education Act reauthorization will affect issues ranging from state authorization of institutions to overhauling federal financial aid forms that many states rely on for calculating state aid, according to the issue brief released this week.
Predictably, issues like sluggish state revenue growth and affordability top the list, with economic and workforce development, and the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students following closely behind. Guns on campus remains a top issue, as the number of states with “legislation stripping institutions of their autonomy to regulate campus safety policies” hit 10 in 2017, with the addition of Georgia and Arkansas. Campus free speech and sexual assault also remain top issues for states, provoked as well by policy changes being pushed at the federal level.
In a December convening around Higher Education Government Relations in San Diego, AASCU director of state relations and policy analysis Tom Harnisch called the tax bill “the wild card for state budgets.” While the final bill allows taxpayers to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes on their federal returns, there is still concern about how higher-tax states will respond.
State responses to population shifts, a major driver in the conversation about how public higher education is structured, made the seventh spot on the AASCU list. A recent Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report found that while the number of high school graduates will continue to increase through the 2024-2025 school year, there will be an 8% decline in the following decade.
Much of the way states are responding to this is reflected in an increasing push toward mergers — with Georgia leading the way, cutting the number of state institutions from 35 to 26 in the last decade, and Wisconsin moving forward with plans to merge its two- and four-year systems — and an increasing push for right-sizing, including performance-based funding to demonstrate return on investment (the eighth item on the list).
Tied to right-sizing and performance-based funding is the idea in the state houses that public institutions need to trim the fat on campus spending. This idea that is likely fueled by increasing reports of high administrative salaries — and payouts when leaders are terminated before the end of their contracts — and an escalating amenities race, which University of Maryland System Chancellor Robert Caret recently said is to blame for the skyrocketing cost of college.