By Andrew Smalley
More than 30 legislators and staff convened in Denver to engage with issues ranging from recent policy trends to future workforce development during the 15th annual Legislative Institute on Higher Education.
Scott Jenkins, strategy director for the Lumina Foundation, presented on state data dashboards which can be used to provide quick access to information and updates on state policy goals.
Legislators also reviewed Lumina’s Stronger Nation reports which provide state updates on higher education attainment, including detailed breakdowns of county-level attainment. Legislators used these reports to discuss potential areas of improvement in their states and looked at current gaps in attainment highlighted by the data.
Challenges varied by state, with some focusing on inequities between urban and rural attainment, and others citing the need to improve credential attainment in their state.
NCSL Education Program Principal Ben Boggs presented on recent legislative trends and explained NCSL’s Legislator’s Toolkit for the New World of Higher Education which will inform legislators about a variety of issues facing state post-secondary systems.
Many legislators expressed common concerns about policy issues including credit transfer and conversion, rising institutional costs and efforts to get older students reintegrated back into postsecondary education.
Legislators also shared many previous policy success stories from their state efforts on education issues. Several lawmakers spoke about efforts to integrate postsecondary institutions into larger efforts such as workforce development and career pathways. Representative Jeff Reardon (D-Ore.) said, “We are trying to promote greater alignment to see if we can develop a comprehensive system to help build our state’s talent.”
Other lawmakers, including Representative Jerry N. Govan Jr. (D-S.C.), touted investments in technical education. “We have led the country in terms of technical education programs," he said. "These programs have been in place for the last 30 years and have served our state well. We have put more money into technical education and lots of young people are utilizing these resources.”
Washington lawmakers discussed a multi-faceted effort to protect students in higher education. This push included legislation to create a Student Loan Bill of Rights and another law banning universities from asking potential students about criminal records during the application process. Washington also developed additional statewide resources for suicide prevention and behavioral health.
Senator Marko Liias (D-Wash) explained, “We looked across the state and saw that there were not equal resources. We tried to create a program to get similar levels of resources across the state. This was a very bipartisan idea that had support from both Democrats and Republicans.”
Legislators and staff also spoke about continuing problems in their states. Student loan debt was one major issue mentioned by numerous legislators. Some states are considering state-based refinancing options or other programs such as Purdue University’s income sharing agreement, which lets Purdue graduates pay back a share of their income after graduation to cover the cost of their education without taking out student loans.
Lumina Strategy Officer Gretchen Syverud encouraged lawmakers to look at which graduates are really struggling to repay their loans. “A good first question to ask is: Who is actually defaulting on their debt?” Syverud said.
Several legislators expressed concern about rising institutional costs that make college increasingly unaffordable. “We need to get a handle on the cost of colleges,” said Senator Donna Kim (D-Hawaii). “We are looking at how to hold the university more accountable.”
Legislators expressed a strong desire to find policy solutions that make the best use of limited fiscal resources.
“What we have seen is that funding is in short supply," Govan said. "We face issues relating to roads, natural disasters and our pension fund every year. We have to find ways to reach across party lines to balance raising funds and costs to find a way to expand opportunities for another generation.”
Andrew Smalley is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.