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Legislative Preview: Affordability, Free Speech Among Trends in Higher Education

By Andrew Smalley  |  April 6, 2022

The pandemic has yielded mixed realities for higher education. State budgets have largely recovered from COVID’s early economic shocks, and higher education appears likely to receive strong levels of fiscal support in the next year. But postsecondary enrollment continues to fall, with an overall decline of 5.8% since 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Many institutions face pressure to raise tuition and fees because of broader inflationary trends.

State lawmakers have introduced hundreds of postsecondary education bills since the start of the year, most related to financial aid and affordability programs. Proposals in at least three states—Kansas, Mississippi and North Carolina—would create new statewide promise programs. California and Illinois are considering bans on scholarship displacement, which occurs when a student receives a private scholarship or grant that leads to a reduction in other forms of financial aid. Legislation in Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York and South Carolina would add completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as a high school graduation requirement.

Hunger, Campus Safety, Hot-Button Academic Concepts

Many college students also face costs beyond tuition and fees, including housing, food, child care and transportation, with legislators aiming to address some of those challenges. New Jersey and California have introduced legislation to expand access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for college students, while Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina all have bills related to hunger issues on campus.

Campus safety remains an active topic for legislators. At least six states are considering legislation to address campus hazing and subsequent criminal charges. Proposals in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma and South Carolina would allow firearms or expand concealed carry provisions on campus; 30 bills have been introduced in 10 states related to sexual violence on campus.

Several states, including Alabama, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have pending legislation relating to divisive concepts, such as critical race theory, at higher education institutions. At least 14 states are considering legislation related to free speech on campus more broadly.

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

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