By Andrew Smalley
After a 2020 session disrupted by COVID-19, lawmakers across the country returning to statehouses will continue responding to the pandemic. One issue legislators will address will be the myriad challenges facing colleges and students pursuing a postsecondary degree or credential.
The coronavirus led to major disruptions at colleges and universities across the country, and obstacles remain on the horizon in 2021.
Students face continued limits on in-person learning, while institutions confront hurdles for both supporting existing students and attracting new ones. Overall postsecondary enrollment declined by 2.5% in fall 2020 and freshman class sizes were significantly smaller, particularly at community colleges where first-time student enrollment dropped 21% according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Additionally, new international student enrollment dropped by 43%.
Given these dips in enrollment, many states are reviewing legislation to modify admissions practices. Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and New York will consider bills to move to test-optional admissions by removing ACT/SAT testing requirements from admissions criteria. Connecticut and Georgia will consider bills to prioritize admission for in-state students.
As institutions confront declining enrollment, budget uncertainty also looms. After entering 2020 with plans to boost budgets, at least a dozen states were forced to make drastic cuts to higher education funding due to the pandemic and many states continue to find themselves in a fragile fiscal situation in 2021. Throughout the session, lawmakers will navigate balancing the needs of institutions and students with limited fiscal flexibility.
As budgets remain in the spotlight, states will also explore strategies to increase affordability and boost financial aid access for students.
At least five states will consider the creation of new ‘promise programs’ to provide scholarships for students to attend community college. Another six states are considering legislation to make Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion mandatory for graduating high school seniors.
Discussions around affordability also include costs beyond tuition and fees. Seven states have introduced legislation relating to the cost of course materials such as textbooks, and other states are exploring issues related to campus hunger, childcare, and housing support. New Jersey will consider legislation requiring institutions to post information and provide counseling to students regarding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs. A separate bill would create a “College Child Care Advisory Commission" to examine issues and develop recommendations to support college students who require child care services.
In addition to student supports beyond tuition, legislators will consider several strategies to address diversity and equity in higher education.
Virginia will consider legislation to create an Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship Program, and a Maryland bill would provide the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities with an additional $577 million in funding. A proposal in Washington would require institutions to provide students with training on diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism by 2024. A bill in South Carolina would require the faculty of a public institution of higher learning to proportionally mirror the ethnic diversity and political diversity of the state.
Campus safety and free speech are also likely to remain hot topics, especially as growing numbers of students return to in-person learning on campus. Bills related to free speech or campus intellectual freedom have been introduced in at least 12 states.
NCSL’s higher education team will be tracking all postsecondary legislation in 2021 in the NCSL Postsecondary Bill Tracking Database. This database includes pending and enacted legislation in 40 higher education categories ranging from admissions and affordability to workforce development. The database includes bills since 2019 and more than 1,000 bills that have already been introduced in 2021.
Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL's Education Program.