Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024:
Introduction and Contextual Issues

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.

Updated November 22, 2023

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.

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.

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. 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.

Further discouraging news came in a Gallup poll released in July 2023 that found Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen to 36 percent, considerably lower than previous polling conducted in 2015 and 2018, and among all four groups polled (party affiliation, education level, age, and gender) and their 11 subgroups. Forty percent of adults surveyed have “some” and 22 percent “very little” confidence in higher education, while 17 percent have “a great deal” and 19 percent “quite a lot” of confidence. Since the 2018 poll, Gallup found that confidence dropped the most among Republicans but also dropped nearly as much among adults without a college degree and among those 55 and older. The only subgroup with majority-level confidence in higher education is Democrats (59 percent).

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.

A national survey of 3,000 adults released in July 2023 by College Teachers College held more positive news. In addition to a belief that substantial benefits accrue to individuals receiving a college degree, the survey found that “an overwhelming majority of Americans believe higher education is an excellent or good investment of public funds, and that higher education benefits society at large through scientific advances, the encouragement of national prosperity and development, and civic participation.”

Among its several, more specific findings, the survey found differences between those with differing political beliefs, “with 56 percent of self-identified liberals saying public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment, compared with 32 percent of conservatives and 45 percent of moderates.” Another key finding: nearly half of liberals say higher education has contributed significantly to scientific advances that benefit society; only 31 percent of conservatives and 32 percent of moderates say it has.

Economic Anxiety

Anxiety over the state of the economy factors heavily into the decisions that college administrators and governing boards are weighing based on their institutions’ outlook and financial strengths. While the perception of a flailing economy may be greater than the reality, the longest bull market in history came to an end in 2022. In order to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve set the highest interest rate in decades. Combined with higher prices for food and gasoline, families are making 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 of 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 federal spending is looming. Congress has almost caused a shutdown multiple times in 2022 and 2023. The next round of negotiations will take place through January.

Political Division

The political divide in Washington was evident in the House Republicans’ hostile reception to President Biden’s State of the Union address and proposed budget for fiscal 2024. The GOP has also sought to undue Biden administration education regulations through the Congressional Review Act. It also was clear from a raft of bills that the new Republican majority in the House proposed to undo Biden policies and priorities.

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. The 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. The 2024 elections could create further movement in these gubernatorial and state legislative dynamics.

Two more areas of division include the wars in Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas. These international crises—especially the latter—are generating rifts in the relationships within and between student groups, faculty, staff, and the surrounding communities. In addition to current students, alumni and donors are venting frustrations and calling on institutional leaders to be more emphatic in their support for Israel or the Palestinians.

Changes in Congressional Leadership

As we enter the new biennium, some higher education stalwarts have left the scene, while a new cadre of leaders took 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 passed from Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has spent more time focused on labor protections and health care rather than education matters, despite introducing his signature free college proposal, “College for All.”. With the retirement of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), 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 and joined Sanders in his focus on healthcare issues this Congress.

The chair and ranking minority member switched places on the renamed House Committee on Education and the Workforce, with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), 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.

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 chairwoman told Fox Business News. Separately, she attacked 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.

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.”

And on the powerful tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means, the chair is now Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO), taking over from Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA). The committee has its designs on a major tax bill but has yet to move such legislation. As with past major tax legislation, a bill may focus on provisions of the tax code that affect colleges and universities, including the tax exemption afforded to college and university endowments.

While not directly impacting the leadership of congressional committees, the House took the unprecedented step of removing Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from the position of House speaker. After three weeks of several attempts to elect other GOP members to the position, the House ultimately selected Mike Johnson (R-LA) to be the speaker of the House. Johnson is one of the youngest speakers ever, and his ability to steer the House on appropriations and other matters will be tested throughout the remainder of this Congress.

The 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 recently made two consequential decisions in the higher education arena. Notably, the Court overturned four decades of legal precedent in how race can be used in higher education admissions practices 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. Further, the Court struck down President Biden’s attempt to forgive an estimated $400 million in student loan debt. Not yet decided is the fate of the so-called Dreamers, undocumented students and young adults born outside the United States but raised and educated here.

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.