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As Higher Education Evolves, States and Universities Work to Adapt

Challenges include declining enrollment, changing student expectations and the perception that a college degree is no longer worth the cost.

By Andrew Smalley  |  August 28, 2023

A recent poll found that many people no longer think a college degree is worth the cost. Declining enrollments and growth in nondegree credentials have compounded that view.

It was one of many challenges facing higher education explored by panelists during a session at the 2023 NCSL Legislative Summit.

“We have affordability challenges, completion challenges and other challenges that are causing many people, young and old, to question the value of postsecondary education and causing them to hesitate about taking that important step,” says Oregon Sen. Michael Dembrow, who co-chairs the NCSL Higher Education Task Force on Affordability and Student Outcomes with Utah Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner.

“We want access. We want affordability. And we want completion, graduation. If we can think about things together and align our work around common goals, we are going to be much more successful as we think about the way forward.”

—Utah Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner

“We want access. We want affordability. And we want completion, graduation,” Millner says. “And if we can think about things together and align our work around common goals, we are going to be much more successful as we think about the way forward and the important role higher education plays, both in developing and educating citizenry and also the workforce that we need.”

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, says making the case for higher education starts with understanding student demographics.

“The best way to better serve students in the moment that we’re in is to recognize who today’s students are,” Merisotis says. “The majority of learners today are adults. They’re first generation. Many attend part time or something just short of full time. Many are the first in their families to go to college. Many face challenges that the system doesn’t adequately recognize.”

Related: Amid Skepticism About Higher Ed, State Lawmakers on Both Sides Appear Open to Fresh Ideas

Most higher education systems were not designed to serve these students, says Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America.

“Policies have been on the books for sometimes 30, 40, 50 to 75 years,” she says. “If you think about what higher ed looked like 80 years ago, the students they were serving, the types of learners they were serving, (it’s) drastically different.”

Bennett Boggs, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, says restructuring of the department he leads was a first step.

“We’ve combined the Department of Higher Education with the Office of Workforce Development, and that’s been done deliberately,” he says. “I think part of my challenge as the new commissioner of Higher Education and Workforce Development is, how do we go from merging to integrating? How do we create a comprehensive approach that has postsecondary education and workforce development? That goes hand in hand.”

Boggs cites Missouri’s Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which gives financial aid to adult learners in apprenticeship and other programs, as showing promise. Other examples include loan forgiveness programs that offer benefits to residents working in select workforce areas, such as health care. Merisotis also points to incentives for college savings accounts.

As the task force begins its work to examine the state-federal partnership in higher education, the panelists have ideas about how states can maximize engagement with federal stakeholders.

For starters, Merisotis  suggests getting clarity. “One recommendation I would make is to say to the federal government: ‘Which part of this are you going to take primary responsibility for, and what are the things that you’re going to do?’” he says.

Boggs notes the value of Second Chance Pell and postsecondary education for incarcerated students, as well as efforts to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Spiva cites improvements in transfer pathways between institutions as an area of state and federal collaboration.

“If we can think about what the really stellar models are around transfer at the state level,” she says, “and then sort of move those so that the federal agencies can begin to incentivize those types of facilitated completions—that’s going to be really important.”

Andrew Smalley is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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