The NCSL Blog


By Ben Boggs

When considering the challenges facing American higher education, Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik says, “the state role is so important because the states are all are so different: different issues, different conclusions, different conversations.”

Scott JaschikThe editor of the national daily online publication adds that "states taking their cues from D.C. these days see that nothing is positive. Higher education is usually an area of bipartisan collaboration and constructive compromise. This isn’t happening as it has in the past.”

Speaking during a session titled “American Higher Education: The Changing Future” at the recent NCSL Capitol Forum, Jaschik outlined 10 issues facing higher education:

  1. The number of traditional-age students will go down in the next 10-15 years. After the Great Recession, the national birth rate dropped, which will impact college enrollments by as much as 15 percent by 2025 in most states. Institutions can offset this challenge by diversifying their constituents beyond “traditional” ones. Enrollment of international students is significantly lower due to federal immigration concerns—and universities and global-standing will suffer because of it.
  2. The traditional university economic model is not working. Flagship universities have options due to their “brand” names. Small private colleges are going under. Legislatures may want to explore if/when these institutions must warn their students before this happens.
  3. A challenge to diversifying is the current Harvard admissions trail, expected to land in the U.S. Supreme Court, which may well decide to end affirmative action. This will challenge all of us to reconsider how to address issues of inequality.
  4. Student debt is a serious concern. Free college programs are attractive across many states—but nothing is free. Someone must address the expenses.
  5. Due to the brilliant 1862 Morrill Act, which granted state land to establish universities, state flagship universities have strengthened the well-being of the nation. However, much has changed. These universities must consider if their focus is on national or state issues. In contrast, regional universities are taking a beating in their state budgets. They must decide which programs to cut, and how to enhance their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Community colleges are focused on workforce preparation, yet not receiving much state support.
  6. For-profit colleges are going out of business. The students they leave behind are saddled with the worst possible debt. Can legislatures help? This federal administration does not appear to want to.
  7. Just as any other education program, online education is neither good nor bad. However, those who think it’s a “quick cheap fix” don’t know the reality. Online education works best for self-disciplined and well-prepared students. It is not good for at-risk students.
  8. States are looking for effective postsecondary system governance. Coordinating boards are under pressure to deliver efficient and affordable access and results. They are also best structured to do this.
  9. Legislatures should seek to understand the college-going rates by different groups within their states. It is in everyone’s interest that access, affordability and resources are provided in an equitable manner.
  10. The ambitions of many universities may be out of place. Too many claim to be targeting U.S. News’ Top 10 rankings. Here’s the truth: the current top 10 schools are not going anywhere. Instead, focus on the needs of your state, including the improvement of K-12 teacher preparation and public schools.

Ben Boggs is a program principal in NCSL's Education Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.