“Higher education is essential for our way of life and the way we want to organize society.”
As a former Colorado senator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator and university president, Hank Brown’s knowledge of and experience in higher education is notable. The ex-Navy aviator’s leadership skills emerged early, as student body president of the University of Colorado, where he later served as president. Before that he was president and CEO of a large philanthropic fund and president of the University of Northern Colorado. He holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a juris doctorate degree from the University of Colorado Law School, and a master of law degree from George Washington University. Currently, he is senior legal counsel at a Denver law firm.
STATE LEGISLATURES: With your experiences and broad perspective on national issues, how do you think things are going?
HANK BROWN: Our country is going through a cycle that every great and prosperous country has faced: reaching maturity. We face the dangers of prosperity. It’s a dichotomy perhaps. The real question is whether we can pull our boot straps up and come back and compete as we once did. I think we can. I think Americans can recapture our vigor and our energy and our commitment. That’s the challenge for the next decade.
SL: What role should higher education play in our democracy?
BROWN: From Thomas Jefferson forward, Americans have realized that education is key to maintaining a democratic, representative government. It’s essential for our way of life and the way we want to organize society.
SL: Should it be a goal that everyone receives a college education?
BROWN: Americans believe that everybody ought to have an opportunity. A chance. That’s why, from community colleges to research universities, there is funding assistance from states and the federal government. That is the opportunity. It doesn’t mean everybody goes, but it does mean everybody has a chance to go.
SL: What is needed for the United States to regain its competitive edge in our global society?
BROWN: We have a lot of challenges as a country, and it is very clear Americans don’t want to be in second place. We want to be in first place, and a lot of that relates to our productivity and competitiveness as a nation. Higher education is part of that. Part of it deals with making sure we have high standards. Part of it involves rewarding hard work. Part of it means we’ve got to be more efficient because of the shortage of funding. Part of it involves a reorganization of our federal government, which has an incentive to make things more expensive and less productive. And that, state legislators need to address.
SL: Higher education is often the first thing cut in state budgets. Is that the right approach?
BROWN: Both as a state and federal lawmaker, I believed higher education was one of the best investments states could make. But I found out that not everyone shares that belief. Legislators face a tough job, and higher education has been the loser, not because it isn’t worthy, but because legislators are caught in a vice. They are stuck with mandates from the federal government they don’t control and limitations in their constitutions that require balancing the budget. Increasingly, the federal government makes the decisions, and the states pay the bills. That’s not working. We have to change it.
SL: How do we rein in constantly increasing tuition?
BROWN: As long as you have a disincentive from the federal government to lower costs, you are going to have increasing tuition. Because federal financial assistance is based on financial need, the higher the tuition, the more financial aid is awarded. It drives institutions to raise tuition. But this ends up hurting the middle-income student, the one caught in the middle and really squeezed out of this system. They are the ones who don’t qualify for financial aid, but have to pay higher tuition.
SL: So what is the answer?
BROWN: On the federal level, one way to make sure we are not providing an incentive for higher tuition would be to relate financial assistance to the students’ majors—so the income of the career they choose covers the money they must borrow to get the degree. We also need to reconsider federal aid for high-cost institutions. I think we should also put some reasonable limits on how much an institution can increase tuition and still qualify for financial subsidies. And on the state level, I think it is critical to insist that institutions be run without excessive overhead, with reasonable efficiency in terms of the faculty and the staff.
SL: How do state lawmakers exert legislative authority without micromanaging institutions?
BROWN: State legislators can set guidelines on what portion of the budget is spent on instruction, which can be enormously helpful in controlling wasteful overhead. State legislators can set some standards on teaching loads for faculty, dramatically improving productivity without micromanaging.
SL: What is your perspective on the federal government’s recent push for more transparency, accountability and cost control?
BROWN: I’m a fan. It will be a help to everyone, but most important, it will be a help to the institutions. Outside guidance and transparency give administrators at universities and colleges the tools they need to bring about real change. Without that outside pressure, the inside pressures make it very difficult.
SL: What accountability measures do you think state lawmakers should focus on?
BROWN: Not graduation rates, because that’s an invitation to lower quality. The simple fact is you can give anybody a diploma. Focus instead on productivity of the faculty, on efficiency of the administration and on what the students learn. We measure what students learn in many areas already. As long as we hide our head in the sand and refuse to measure outcomes in that way, we are not going to have the kind of progress we need.
SL: Where do you see higher education going in the next 20 years, and where do you want it to go?
BROWN: It is clear we will face further cuts at the state level and down the road. I think within the next decade we are going to see major cuts in federal assistance because there isn’t money to continue to do what we’ve done. My hope is that we will take this as an opportunity, painful as it is, to dramatically improve our productivity, our efficiency and our relevancy. Higher education is still a vital part of a representative democracy. We face great challenges, but I think the American people—and particularly the wonderful talent that exists in higher education—can do it.
Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of conversations with opinion leaders. It has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions are the interviewee’s and not necessarily NCSL’s.