Are States Losing Their Role in Higher Education?

Fri, Sep 19, 2014

Distance Learning, Uncategorized

By Dr. Mike Simmons,

Adjunct Instructor, Public Administration at American Public University

“The idea of dual federalism is a well-established constitutional principle. It encourages our federal government and state governments to work cooperatively in solving the enormous problems we face. The states are rightly concerned that over time, the federal government has been encroaching on the governing power of the states.” (http://www.csg.org/pubs/capitolideas/2013_july_aug/federalism.aspx)

As the 50 year old Higher Education Act (1965) comes up for reauthorization we are reminded that the historical footprint of the federal government in higher education has been related to access–making sure more students can afford and attend college–and research.

The federal government’s presence in higher education is largely based upon four major pieces of legislation.
• Morrill Act 1862 (Established land grant universities)
• GI Bill following WW II
• National Defense education act (1950’s in response to Cold War)
• Higher Ed Act (part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision)

While it remains true that states provide about a 3:1 majority of funding and support of higher education, states are spending less on higher education as discretionary funds dry up while mandatory spending increases (e.g. Medicaid, pensions/benefits). Student loans and loan guarantees combined with tax incentives, actually constitute the majority of federal funding for higher ed.

The federal government appears to be further extending its reach into higher education. One need look no further than the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to see the drama unfold. Hot button issues like how accreditors hold institutions accountable and how colleges can conduct distance education have the federal government taking a dominant and aggressive role in policymaking using both funding and rulemaking as leverages to enact policies.

Other doors on which the federal government is loudly knocking include: the affordability agenda, the completion agenda, economic development, immigration of scholars, research agendas and funding, college athletics, campus security issues, and student loan default rates.

This trend represents what O’Toole describes as “Increasingly complex relationships among the actors makes some of the federal initiatives come off as heavy-handed and clumsy – not at all recognizing the interdependent relationships among all levels of government, NGOs, higher education institutions and the private sector. As a result, networks face challenges in converting solutions into policy energy, assessing internal effectiveness, surmounting inevitable process barriers, mission drift, and more.”

Given all this, do states still have a viable role in higher education? There are fair questions being raised about the federal government’s fundamental interests – which are constitutionally and legally framed – and their political interests – which reflect the policy priorities of governing majorities.

Education has been, and should remain, primarily in the domain of the states. But, there is a viable federal interest as well, and I agree with calls for a more collaborative effort. As Agranoff and Radin, in discussing Deil Wright’s conceptualization of intergovernmental relationships, stated, “A most interesting feature about the emerging set of intergovernmental networks—and what makes them different—is the way officials from the federal government, state governments, local governments, public and private universities, and NGOs representing the nonprofit sectors are challenged to sit down with one another at the same table to discuss, explore, negotiate, and solve issues interactively.”

Federal-state collaboration on higher education issues is bound to be uncomfortable to federal agencies that view themselves in terms of regulatory and fiscal authority. There is a compelling national interest in the success of higher education, but we should always maintain an eye toward the federal-state balance as described in the Tenth Amendment.

Education leaders are making compelling cases for coordinated policy-making related to higher education. Dean L. Brescani, the President of North Dakota State University, effectively summarizes what should remain a generally accepted set of benefits as measured by “increased economic productivity and an enhanced tax base, to reduced needs for public services, assistance programs and health care needs, and a more civil and law-abiding citizenry.” These foundational benefits deserve a new collaboration between all actors.

As Mark Yudoff, President of the University of California system adds, “There never has been an integrated national strategy in this country for higher education. There needs to be one now. The mission is simply too important to leave to state governments that seem disinclined or unable to pursue it. There never has been an integrated national strategy in this country for higher education. There needs to be one now. The mission is simply too important to leave to state governments that seem disinclined or unable to pursue it.”

Finding an effective, federal-state collaborative higher education strategy achieved through new types of relationships should be our real focus because, as James Madison reminded us, “Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

About the Author

Dr. Mike Simmons earned a BS in History from King College and an MPA at UNC – Chapel Hill. He completed his doctorate in public administration and urban affairs from University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Simmons has 15 years of experience in public policy, government, and political consulting. He has worked for a governor, agriculture commissioner, and mayor and consulted with congressional and legislative candidates. He led a statewide non-profit agency for a year and half. His research interests are in government and public administration – specifically intergovernmental relations and e-governance, educational innovation and technology, and online learning. In addition to his role at American Public University, Dr. Simmons currently works in the Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign at the University of North Texas.

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