By Dustin Weeden
As 2016 begins, it’s a good time to look back at the higher education legislation enacted throughout the year. Several themes emerged in 2015 with states moving to create affordable structured pathways to boost the educational attainment of residents and meet the workforce demands of the modern economy.
Affordability annually ranks as one of the top legislative priorities in states and 2015 was no different. States took a variety of approaches to address college affordability concerns in 2015. Washington and Minnesota both mandated tuition reductions during the current biennium while New Hampshire and Vermont took a longer-term approach by establishing child savings account programs. Other states, such as California and Connecticut, focused on nontuition expenses such as textbook costs. Both states enacted legislation that will encourage the use of open-source materials in the coming years.
Financial aid, while closely linked with affordability, deserves its own category given the new policies states enacted. Nevada created the state’s first need-based program that will use a shared responsibility framework to allocate funding. Minnesota and Oregon joined Tennessee by creating free community college programs. Building on the success of its promise program, Tennessee created a tuition-free aid program targeting adult learners. Oregon also enacted a bill to prohibit third-party financial firms from collecting fees related to the disbursement of financial aid money.
Increasing educational attainment of residents has become a top priority in many states in recent years. Connecticut and Minnesota established goals articulating the portion of residents that need to have earned a high quality postsecondary credential by 2025. Connecticut, Florida and Vermont all took steps to tie some portion of state funding for higher education institutions to increasing educational attainment of state residents. Maryland, in an effort to increase the enrollment and success of low-income students, created a pilot program to partner with nonprofit organizations with successful histories of serving these students.
Student loan debt has increased rapidly in recent years leading to a growing number of states creating policies to address the growing debt burden of college students. New York and Rhode Island created new programs that will help students repay their loans. Connecticut and Maine authorized the creation of refinancing programs while Arkansas and Indiana passed bills to provide students better information. Connecticut passed a student loan bill of rights to provide borrowers better protections and information.
Workforce development has become a top priority with many states enacting policies to help ensure the future workforce meets the demands of the economy. Colorado passed a bill authorizing a limited number of P-tech schools that combine high school and college-level course work with workplace experiences. Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland all passed bills designed to create or expand apprenticeship and internship opportunities. Colorado and Nebraska passed laws that will provide financial support for workforce development initiatives.
Campus safety was a hot topic in 2015 with surveys reporting 20 percent of female students are sexually assaulted while enrolled in college. Several states passed legislation requiring higher education institutions develop policies on campus sexual assault. Other states enacted legislation related to developing agreements with law enforcement and medical facilities to assist victims of campus sexual assaults. Louisiana and Washington passed bills requiring colleges and universities to conduct campus climate assessments.
Dual enrollment in postsecondary courses while in secondary school can provide many students with many benefits such as graduating on time and reducing the total price of college. Several states enacted policies to enhance existing dual enrollment programs and help student earn college credit. For example, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia all passed bills related to the work for which students will be able to receive postsecondary credit while Washington revised the state’s dual enrollment funding formula to assist students with transportation and book expenses.
For more information about the bills highlighted above and others, please visit NCSL’s Higher Education Legislation in 2015 Web page.
Dustin Weeden is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Education Program.