Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024:
Exploring the context of today's most pressing public policy issues.
No discussion of top public policy issues facing higher education over the current biennium can take place without a discussion of the broader environment in which they will occur. What follows is a brief review of the contextual issues which help frame the specific policy issues of 2023-2024.
The Long Tail of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic placed extraordinary demands on higher education institutions over the past few years. In response, colleges and universities exhibited admirable adroitness and adaptability, and with $76 billion in financial help from Washington, rose to the occasion. They made rapid adjustments in instruction and work arrangements that under normal circumstances might have taken months or even years of planning.
But they are not yet out of the woods. It remains unclear what the impacts will be from the long tail of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may include not only lingering illness and periodic new strains/outbreaks but also employee resistance to returning full-time to classrooms and offices. The pandemic may also have bred greater uncertainty among current and future students about whether they actually want to consume what colleges and universities are producing. Enrollments fell markedly during the pandemic. Fewer high school graduates went straight to college, and it isn’t certain whether and when they will be back.
A hopeful sign: undergraduate enrollment began to stabilize in fall 2022, contracting only by 0.6 percent, or 94,000 students, compared to fall 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Yet postsecondary enrollment remained well below pre-pandemic levels, down 1.1 million from fall 2019.i
That said, across various types of higher education institutions, the enrollment outlook is far from uniform. The most prestigious, selective, and best-endowed institutions, both public and private, continue to be swamped with applications while regional public universities and some private colleges struggle to attract students.
A bright spot has been international enrollments, which plunged 15 percent in 2020-2021 but then rebounded by almost 4 percent the following academic year. At a fraught time for U.S.-China relations, enrollments from China, a source of fully a third of international students that come to the United States, bucked the trend and fell a further 9 percent in 2021-2022. However, enrollments from India, the second largest country of origin, did rebound sharply, up 19 percent.ii
i “Current Term Enrollment Estimates, Fall 2022 Expanded Edition,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, February 2, 2023, https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/.
ii “Open Doors Data,” Institute of International Education, November 2022, https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/enrollment-trends/.
Public Skepticism of Higher Education
There has been no rebound in the public’s waning belief in the value of higher education institutions and a college degree. New America, a liberal-leaning public policy organization, found in its sixth annual survey of public attitudes toward higher education that just over half (55 percent) believe that colleges and universities are leading America in a positive direction, with a large partisan divide evident on that question. Seventy-three percent of Democrats but only 37 percent of Republicans believed they have a positive impact.i Republican voters also are far less convinced than Democrats that a diploma still offers the best path to successful careers and prosperity. Meanwhile, conservative politicians frequently inveigh against what they charge is the indoctrination of students by “woke” liberal faculty members.
Regardless of where someone’s viewpoint lies on these issues, such attacks have placed college and universities in a defensive posture and are further eroding their influence on public policy. In the long build-up to the 2024 elections for the White House, Congress, and state offices, higher education institutions may find themselves used as a political punching bag.
i “Varying Degrees 2022: New America’s Sixth Annual Survey on Higher Education,” New America, July 26, 2022, https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/reports/varying-degrees-2022/.
A Looming Economic Downturn
Fear of a recession or sharp economic downturn factors heavily into the decisions that college administrators and governing boards are weighing based on their institutions’ outlook and financial strengths. The longest bull market in history came to an end in 2022. Although stocks started the new year on a positive note, inflation and interest rates remained high, forcing families to make hard decisions not only about what to buy at the supermarket but also where to send their kids to college. The availability of the technology that allowed campuses to shift to remote and asynchronous instruction could make families less willing to bear the higher cost of the traditional, residential college experience built around close relationships between professors and students.
No institution is immune from financial concerns, even the well-endowed. Inflation is driving up their costs, including wages, and the success of the strike by tens of thousands University of California graduate students and researchers for higher salaries and benefits could spur unionization drives on other campuses.
Meanwhile, a standoff between Republicans and Democrats over raising the debt ceiling could further roil the economic waters. Although Democrats pushed through in the final weeks of the last Congress a $1.7-trillion omnibus bill for fiscal 2023 with a modest increase in education and research spending, a partisan fight over raising the federal debt ceiling could jeopardize that and create national economic instability. The U.S. Department of Treasury resorted to fiscal legerdemain to put off default for several months, but a reckoning seems inevitable.
The political divide in Washington was evident in the hostile reception of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to President Biden’s State of the Union address and proposed budget for fiscal 2024. It also was clear from the raft of bills that the new Republican majority in the House proposed to undo Biden policies and priorities. And it has presented itself in partisan haggling over other key legislation.
The political divide is certain to widen in the run-up to the 2024 elections, imperiling the chances of forging compromises on issues of particular importance to colleges and universities—such as the long overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. But there will probably be some areas of bipartisan agreement. A newly created House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party will keep attention focused on that contentious arena, with ramifications for research on U.S. campuses. There also is sentiment across the aisle to hold institutions to greater account for steep student loan default rates and poor returns in the labor market for certain degrees.
While each party has a razor-thin margin in the bicameral half of Congress under its control, states are politically split, too. After gains by Democrats in 2022, 26 states now have Republican governors, including 22 states in which the GOP controls the legislature, as well. The 24 Democratic governors control both legislative houses in 17 states, with control divided in the 11 other states.
Changes in Congressional Leadership
As we enter the new biennium, some higher education stalwarts are no longer on the scene, while a new cadre of leaders are taking charge of key Senate and House committees. Those changes could well have a major impact on various issues of concern to colleges and universities.
The chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has passed from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has signaled that increasing access to higher education will be one of his top priorities. With the retirement of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) became HELP’s ranking minority member. Cassidy is a medical doctor and strong advocate of better mental health services for students.
The chair and ranking minority member switched places on the renamed House Committee on Education and the Workforce, with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a onetime community college president and businesswoman first elected in 2004, taking the gavel from Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), a liberal attorney and former NAACP leader starting his third decade in Congress.
Foxx, who received a waiver from her party to resume chairing the House committee, is a deficit hawk who has long championed workforce development programs and was among the sharpest critics of Biden’s debt forgiveness plan. “This is all on the backs of taxpayers, many of whom didn’t want to go to college or went to college and paid for (it),” the new chairwoman told Fox Business News.i Separately, she attackedii the regulatory changes proposed by President Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Michael Carbona in January 2023 to cut undergraduate loan payments in half and prevent unpaid interest from accumulating.iiii
In a wide-ranging interview with the editors of Inside Higher Ed, Representative Foxx revealed her priorities for the committee (her hopes for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act), as well as her concerns about higher education accountability and transparency. She stated that higher education, “has never been held in such low esteem as it is now.” She has also expressed her views of the work of governing boards: “You’re seeing trustees who are aware of the problems in the colleges and universities, and that’s a huge deal. Trustees are now speaking up and forming groups, particularly on speech issues, but also on accountability issues.”iv
And on the powerful tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means, the chair is now Jason Smith (R-MO), taking over from Richard Neal (D-MA). The committee may hold hearings on the provisions of the tax code that affect colleges and universities.
i “Biden’s student loan bailout is on the backs of taxpayers,” Fox Business News, January 10, 2023, https://video.foxbusiness.com/v/6318475380112.
ii “Biden Uses IDR as Backdoor to Free College,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, January 10, 2023, https://edworkforce.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=408755.
iii“New Proposed Regulations Would Transform Income-Driven Repayment by Cutting Undergraduate Loan Payments in Half and Preventing Unpaid Interest Accumulation,” U.S. Department of Education, January 10, 2023, https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/new-proposed-regulations-would-transform-income-driven-repayment-cutting-undergraduate-loan-payments-half-and-preventing-unpaid-interest-accumulation.
iv Katherine Knott, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Foxx” Inside Higher Ed, March 9, 2023, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2023/03/09/foxx-back-charge-pledges-oversight-stronger-accountability.
The New Supreme Court
A standoff between the executive and legislative branches in Washington, D.C., means the judiciary could well have the final say on several issues of upmost importance. The Biden Administration will seek to advance its policy aims through regulations and executive orders where there is little likelihood of getting legislation or its FY 2024 budget through Congress. (The Trump Administration took the same tack, with limited results.) But Biden is now dealing with an enlarged and emboldened conservative majority on the Supreme Court that, as it demonstrated when it threw out Environmental Protection Agency limits on coal plant emissions, has shown no reluctance to overturn precedents or to thwart White House attempts to advance its policies and priorities absent explicit legislative authorization.
Most important for higher education, the high court is poised to make consequential decisions in its current term or beyond. Notably, the legality of affirmative action in college admissions rests in the hands of the court at a time when the country struggles with a history of racism and inequities and the police killings of George Floyd, Tyre Nichols, and other Black Americans. President Biden’s attempt to forgive an estimated $400 million in student loan debti also awaits the court’s judgment, as does the fate of the so-called Dreamers, undocumented students and young adults born outside the United States but raised and educated here.
i “CBO: White House Plan to Cancel Student Loan Debt Costs $400 Billion,” Washington Post, September 26, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2022/09/26/cbo-student-loan-forgiveness-biden/.
Higher Education as a Strategic Asset
It’s clear that colleges and universities will have to navigate difficult waters over the next two years and beyond. The public’s faith and trust in colleges and universities has been shaken by admissions scandals, headlines about sexual misconduct, the continued professionalization of big-time college sports, and the abandonment of the student athlete ideal. The mainstream news media, not just partisan outlets on the right and left, focus far more on what’s wrong with higher education than on what’s right and praiseworthy.
Overlooked, if not entirely lost, in this discontent with higher education is the reality that this sprawling system—from open door, career-oriented colleges to universities where Nobel Laureates are producing the next research breakthroughs—remains the country’s greatest strategic asset, unique in its diversity, autonomy, creativity, and lack of centralized structure and control. In this fractious time in the nation’s history, the challenge for those who govern these institutions is to rebuild the public’s trust and support for the independence, diversity, and self-governance that have allowed this unrivalled system to flourish. It is incumbent on those who govern and lead colleges and universities to be engaged in public policy issues to ensure that their voices are heard on issues of importance—not only to their institutions but also to higher education institutions collectively.