An unusual organization of policy leaders has joined the chorus for higher education reform. Chief state budget officers rarely speak collectively or publicly about higher education—instead focusing on state revenue issues, adjusting budgets in light of revenue surpluses (a rare event of late) or shortfalls, and enacting a budget.
But in a recent report, these state officials spoke out on higher education. In it, they explore the realities of increased enrollment demands, limited state funding, slower growth in tuition, concerns about institutional spending patterns, performance-based funding, and a changed federal-state partnership. These realities led the state budget heads to a set of recommendations that are not unexpected. They include funding performance, restricting tuition increases, expanding access, improving information about higher education spending, and increasing cost-efficiency. In other words, the call for reform on higher education is now squarely on the minds of state fiscal officers.
I think that on the whole, these leaders are on the right track. Limited resources are a reality for the foreseeable future. States should take a lead role in establishing tuition and adopting performance funding, but there is far more that they could do.
- Shift public support to institutions that enroll most of our students. Or, how about funding students first?
- Approve budgets for public institutions that also include maintenance of the physical and technological infrastructure.
- Shift merit-based financial aid to programs that address financial need or combine financial need with merit.
These are only a few of the actions that state governments might take to minimize the damage to students and institutions. But fundamentally the states that fund our public institutions must establish a framework within which this process works. Given the public benefits of higher education, there should be a public compact, involving states, institutions, students, and families. A more balanced approach on the responsibilities of each party to reform is important.
The budget officers have taken this important first step, but political leaders will ultimately have to lead the charge in order for the country to increase its educational capital.
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