As we gear up for the spring legislative session, it looks as if some of the familiar national policy discussions in higher education continue to be at the forefront of discussions at the state level as well. Specifically, higher education staff can expect to hear much more around college affordability and college cost. On a federal level, the FUTURE Act was signed by the President in December 2019 and many political candidates and leaders have expressed an interest in scaling PROMISE programs. Along with restoring authorization for funding for many minority-serving institutions, the FUTURE Act will tackle the issue of FAFSA simplification by allowing the IRS to disclose limited tax return information directly to authorized Department of Education officials for the purpose of determining eligibility, and amount of, federal student financial aid and income-based loan repayment programs.
As a result of the national conversation around financial aid, many states are now re-thinking need-based aid programs. In 2019, 19 Governors mentioned college affordability as a priority in their annual state of the state addresses (ECS, 2019). State funded merit scholarships are politically popular, but as college tuition rises, policymakers in some states are rethinking financial aid that disproportionately benefits white, wealthy students and often duplicates scholarships awarded by public universities. Lawmakers in Georgia added a need-based grant last year, as did Utah lawmakers. Tennessee’s Higher Education Coordinating agency will propose streamlining some of its scholarship programs this year as well. The Utah State Board of Regents last month recommended eliminating two merit scholarships and moving the funds to grants for students struggling to pay for college. In 10 states and Washington D.C., more than two-thirds of the financial aid budget is spent on grants to students based on merit regardless of family income (Pew, 2019). This will be an area to continue to watch during the next session.
Student debt and borrower assistance will also continue to be at the top of the policy agenda. While debt relief remains unpopular due to obstacles like the difficulty in data-sharing issues, several states have been increasing their general funding for higher education to try to get back to pre-recession levels as one way to drive down cost for students. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren is weighing in with the idea to direct the Secretary of Education to use her authority to modify federal student loans to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for roughly 42 million borrowers. Already in Georgia, House Bill 736 has been filed to provide student loan relief for teachers as an incentive to work at under-performing schools in a “high demand” subject like math, science, or special education.
All of the conversation around college affordability also means states will continue to discuss support for low-income students in the 2020 session. The conversation around programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), child care subsidies, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are areas that could help students. Several states saw legislation pass last year that required degree granting institutions to appoint a staff liaison specifically focused on working with homeless students to connect them with resources. There is growing interest in restoring Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals and another round of experimental sites for Second Chance Pell is currently underway.
Outside of policies regarding funding and cost considerations, state attention will continue to be placed on preparing students for the workforce. In the 2019 State of the State addresses, 35 governors mentioned workforce development (ECS, 2019). At a federal level, attention on apprenticeships has spurred state investment and infrastructure in expanding apprenticeship programs. The U.S. Department of Education will announce the schools who were selected to participate in a new Federal Work-Study (FWS) pilot which will allow students to use FWS for off-campus employment opportunities like apprenticeships and internships, clinicals and student teaching. A just-introduced bipartisan Senate bill, “Success for Rural Students and Communities Act,” aims to take a more holistic approach to engaging high school students and families in college, financial aid, courses, programs, internships, and career pathways. If passed, the legislation will crate a $60 million pilot program to help rural students attain a postsecondary credential and connect them to local job opportunities.
While certainly there continues to be interest in First Amendment freedoms, Title IX, DACA, LGBTQIA rights, accessibility, and international student/research, movement at the federal level continues to be slow and there are several court decisions pending that may influence future guidance. States’ interest in these activities largely mirrors the conversation at the national level, but it will be interesting to see what movement is taken during an election year on these more controversial topics. For now, it appears that the more popular conversation and focus is related to college cost and affordability. As such, campus personnel should continue to keep an eye on how the national conversation plays out in the coming months to determine the possible impact at the state level.