Policymakers in Washington, D.C., and state capitols across the country rely on an important state-federal alliance as they seek new ways to promote college affordability, completion and student success.
“The federal government is really a junior partner in higher education. But it is a very important partnership that we have,” Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal said during a panel discussion at NCSL’s 2021 Legislative Summit. “Although the federal government now provides almost as much money to higher education as states do, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to talk with state policymakers about the challenges they feel, what’s high on their agenda and how the federal government can play a supporting role.”
The panel, which included several state legislators and was moderated by NCSL Senior Legislative Director Austin Reid, discussed the challenges facing higher education students, potential policy solutions and the interplay between the state and federal roles in higher education.
The lawmakers provided an overview of state efforts to promote affordability, boost student completion and provide value to both students and their state economies.
Tennessee Senator Jon Lundberg (R) spoke about his state’s efforts to move the focus of higher education from enrollment to completion.
“About 10 years ago in Tennessee we created the Complete College Act,” he said. “We had a strategic mental shift to say, ‘Let’s fund higher education not by how many people enroll, but how many people graduate,’ and that really changed a lot of the discussion and a lot of that philosophy on campuses.”
We had a strategic mental shift to say, ‘Let’s fund higher education not by how many people enroll, but how many people graduate.’ —Tennessee Senator Jon Lundberg
Montana Senator Shannon O’Brien (D) highlighted a state program to align postsecondary education programs with workforce needs.
“Our labor and industry department has worked with our higher education department to develop a labor market outcomes report,” she said. “It analyzed every single degree, every single certificate that is provided and assessed how many new hires would be needed in that specific area. That really becomes our marching order as school administrators.”
Arkansas Senator Missy Irvin (R) spoke about legislation in her state to help inform students and families about their higher education options.
“I wrote a bill to create the Higher Education Consumer Guide. It really brings together all the data and information that is so siloed out there. It is a consumer guide for parents to be able to utilize with their students,” Irvin said. “It is so important for parents and students to work collectively and together to understand how much tuition costs.”
Virginia Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D) focused on her state’s G3 program, which stands for “Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead” and provides free community college tuition and additional financial support for students who meet aid eligibility guidelines.
“I had students who had to drop out of their academic program because they could not afford changing a tire or gasoline,” Hashmi said. “We know firsthand experience and from research and data that it is often not the lack of academic ability, but it is really the costs that prohibit student success.”
Kvaal previewed the Biden administration’s plans to increase the Pell Grant, to provide more support to Hispanic-serving and historically Black colleges and universities, and to improve and promote better data use.
“One recurring theme seems to be around data,” Hashmi said. “The better data we have, the better decisions, and the better policies we are able to make.”
Kvaal also reiterated support for a nationwide free community college program.
“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it weren’t for the leadership of Tennessee in particular, and other states that have developed free community college,” Kvaal said. “Not only does Tennessee show that something like free community college is possible, but it also shows that it works.”
As lawmakers discussed the proposal, Irvin urged flexibility for states.
“One size just does not fit all. Every state has its own challenges, their own population,” Irvin said. “The state legislators who are so connected to those areas know those areas better than the federal government will.”
Andrew Smalley is a policy associate in NCSL’s Education Program.