It’s official: we have a new president. Whatever your politics, the decision has been made by the American people.
Now that the election is over, it’s time to get serious about solving our nation’s higher education crisis with support from our nation’s new leader. We need to pull together and galvanize the recommendations of our higher education leadership into real, positive policy change for our public universities.
Because without clear, affordable pathways to quality higher education, the other problems facing our country – a stagnant economy, middling job growth, mounting health challenges – will remain just as pressing as they are today.
Mr. Trump has not yet outlined a significant higher education plan, but we know he, like many of our citizens, is against the idea of federalization.
That is why the concept of a federal-state partnership, which would incentivize states to maintain or increase their support of public colleges and universities, is so crucial to our future. And that’s why the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) have both identified the pursuit of such a partnership as their number one priority.
Right now, the federal government is the primary funding source for public colleges and universities through federal grants, loans and tax credits. Students and parents are given these funds to take to whichever university they choose, regardless of whether it is public, private or for-profit. This has had a quiet and unintended consequence of allowing states to steadily back out of their funding obligations by supplanting state dollars with federal ones.
In other words, we stand at the brink of “federalizing” higher education as states continuously remove themselves from funding their public responsibilities.
At the very foundation of this predicament is a 30-year decline in state “tax effort” support for public colleges and universities. Our public institutions educate 75 percent of the nation’s students, yet receive funding from their respective states that hovers at 1966 “tax effort” levels, which measures state spending when compared to a state’s per-capita fiscal capacity.
As a nation, we complain about the cost of attending college, while studies show 80 percent of tuition increases at public universities and colleges between 2001 and 2011 were the direct result of state disinvestment.
Without state reinvestment, public tuition will undoubtedly rise in order to fill the gap. This can’t continue if we are committed to our next generation of students, or to the current and future economy of this nation.
This is not a southern, northern, eastern or western state issue, but a national issue with significant impact on the future of all American higher education.
If we are truly concerned about increasing access, improving affordability and maintaining quality in higher education, then we should be deeply concerned about the plight of our public universities. This is how serious the problem is: in less than a decade, Colorado will become the first state not to spend a single penny on public higher education. This means that kindergartners in Colorado will have no affordable public college or university options as early as 2025.
States that will soon follow in abandoning all their public higher education funding include my own state of Louisiana in 2027, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 2029, Arizona in 2030, and the list goes on. Once that happens, higher education will indeed be a federalized institution.
We have a major problem at the very core of our higher education funding system in this country. If we treat the root cause through enacting a federal-state partnership to save public colleges and universities, we can better maintain our nation’s commitment to providing affordable, high-quality higher education options for everyone. No one wants to see the unintended consequence of the federalization of American higher education because states have quietly backed out of their funding responsibilities while federal policy has allowed them to do so.
As higher education leaders and concerned citizens, we must take hold of this moment and leverage it into policy changes that will have widespread impact. As concerns about student loan indebtedness and tuition increases continue to dominate the American higher education discourse, we must seek alternative solutions that stabilize and even incentivize state funding to public institutions.
As Mr. Trump begins planning his approach to policy in earnest, we urge him to take the recommendations of our nation’s leading public higher education organizations and implement a federal-state partnership to keep public colleges and universities affordable.
If we don’t act now, at this crucial changing of the guard, we will lose the opportunity to enact the change our students – and our country – so desperately need to save affordable public higher education opportunities for all.
F. King Alexander is the president of Louisiana State University