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Problem Solvers: Task Force Debates Ways to Improve Higher Education

NCSL convened legislative leaders, federal policymakers and school officials to discuss college costs and graduation rates, among other issues.

By Austin Reid  |  January 11, 2024

Legislative leaders from 26 states met recently to discuss key challenges in higher education with federal policymakers and higher education executives.

Members of the NCSL Task Force on Higher Education hosted a first-of-its-kind convening, “The Summit on the State-Federal Relationship in Higher Education,” in December.  The task force invited more than 20 college presidents and state university system heads representing all sectors of higher education to participate in roundtable discussions. The task force members had multiple discussions with top federal policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, former Secretary John King and Undersecretary James Kvaal, the top federal official overseeing higher education. They also were joined by key congressional leaders, including U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.).

The discussions helped the task force identify state-federal policy priorities to explore over the next year and ultimately use in shaping their federal policy recommendations due next fall. In particular, the task force plans to examine how expanded dual enrollment and transfer pathways can increase graduation rates and how state and federal programs can be simplified and braided to help students access the supports and information they need. The group will also explore the role that better data can play in helping students to navigate and policymakers to shape state higher education systems.

The task force plans to assess current and proposed federal policies and their relationship to state authorities in higher education. Unlike in elementary and secondary education, there is no substantial direct relationship between state higher education and the federal government, which leads to few opportunities for state and federal policymakers to communicate and coordinate. The December meeting facilitated a long-overdue dialogue between states and federal partners and established new relationships among key leaders in higher education.

The NCSL Task Force on Higher Education is the first national, bipartisan effort of state legislators since NCSL’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education in 2006. Utah Sen. Ann Millner (R) and Oregon Sen. Michael Dembrow (D) co-chair the task force, which includes legislators and legislative staff from 32 states. The task force aims to make college more affordable for students and taxpayers, improve completion rates, and reduce rates of unrepayable student debt. The task force will release a report in fall 2024 that offers a state legislative perspective on the state of higher education and the role of federal policy.

Austin Reid is a senior legislative director in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Division.

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