Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024

By AGB May 3, 2023 May 18th, 2023 AGB Reports

Executive Summary

The most pressing public policy issues facing college and university boards of trustees and foundation boards in 2023 and 2024, in the estimation of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and a higher education advisory panel, are the following:

These issues are gaining strength in a tumultuous context that is very likely to continue over the next several years and beyond. Governing boards and institutional leaders will be called upon to make decisions at a time of acute economic uncertainties, divisive partisan politics, declining enrollment and diminished public confidence in higher education. The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will still ripple through the system as institutions hope for a return to normalcy, including a rebound from the widespread enrollment drops that began in 2019. But whether that hope will be fulfilled remains a question, as recent polls show growing public skepticism over whether expensive college degrees are worth the cost when it comes to outcomes in the job market. And inflation, fears of recession, and a standoff between Republicans and Democrats over raising the debt ceiling are adding significant economic uncertainty to the environment in which colleges and universities will have to recruit and educate students in the future.

Meanwhile, the country’s political divide, manifested in Washington, D.C., and state capitals, has sparked controversies especially in the public sector over diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and, in some states, what can be taught in classrooms about race and racism. Race-conscious admissions, a hallmark of most selective institutions at least since the 1970s, await a new determination of their constitutionality by the U.S. Supreme Court. Rulings are forthcoming, too, on President Biden’s plan to wipe out $400 million in student debt, and perhaps on the legality of the Obama-era program that has allowed hundreds of thousands of young people born outside the United States but raised here to remain in school and work.

These challenges make it more urgent than ever for those who govern and lead colleges and universities to make their voices heard about the importance of higher education not only to the economy but to the country’s civil discourse and cohesion, as well as its vital role as an engine of opportunity and advancement.

We provide a brief introduction of the major issues below, followed by a description of the context in which colleges and their boards, will be grappling with them. We then take a deeper dive into each issue and how it is playing out in higher education today.

Affordability and Value

College affordability and crushing student debt loads are twin issues that affect millions of American families—both those deciding where to send their children and those still struggling to pay off loans from years and even decades ago. Private, nonprofit, four-year institutions, in particular, face growing resistance to tuitions that average nearly $40,000, not counting tuition discounts. Students, families, and the public at large are questioning the fundamental value of a college degree, and government auditors have criticized as confusing the information colleges give prospective students about financial aid and net costs. Meanwhile, proposals by the Biden Administration to increase college affordability—such as larger Pell Grants and tuition-free community college—are likely to hit roadblocks in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

Accountability and Regulation

Despite the political divide in Congress, some measures related to affordability and accountability may attract bipartisan support, including an excise tax on and further scrutiny of the returns of billion-dollar endowments. Other areas where the government may demand greater accountability or impose new regulations are:

  • Title IX. These regulations remain in flux, with the Biden Administration seeking changes to the 1973 law against sex discrimination in education to further protect the rights and gender identity of LGBTQ students. The U.S. Department of Education also plans to publish a separate rule on Title IX’s application to sports, including criteria for determining students’ eligibility to play on male or female teams.
  • Gainful employment. The Biden Administration is reestablishing the Obama Administration’s gainful employment rule for programs at career colleges and certificate programs at all other higher education institutions. It is also seeking to make student aid eligibility dependent on whether those who complete such programs earn as much as high school graduates.
  • Accreditation. The Department of Education said it will seek to amend its standards for accreditation agencies. In addition, after Florida passed a law requiring its public institutions to switch accreditors every five years, the department stepped in to offer guidance, warning it would not allow switches “to lessen oversight or rigor, or evade inquiries or sanctions.”
  • Intellectual property and China. Colleges and universities will be tasked with enforcing new CHIPS and Science Act rules to lessen America’s reliance on foreign semiconductor suppliers and prevent China’s theft of high-tech intellectual property. Those institutions applying for National Science Foundation grants must disclose agreements and gifts from China and “other countries of concern.”
  • Student outcomes. Both the federal government and state governments are requiring higher education institutions to provide more information about the tuition they charge as well as their students’ job prospects, post-college incomes, and other measure of student success. 

Judicial Rulings

A number of cases that could significantly impact colleges are on the dockets of not only a newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court but also various appellate and state courts, including the following:

  • Race conscious admissions. The fate of race-conscious admissions hangs in the balance with the Supreme Court set to rule on two major cases by the end of its 2022-2023 term in June. While most colleges are not highly selective, a high court repudiation of affirmative action could have wide ripple effects, impacting any educational institution that relies on federal student aid.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The legal challenge to DACA, which protects undocumented young people from deportation, is still at the appellate level, with no new students accorded that status and no likelihood that the divided 118th Congress will strike a comprehensive deal on immigration reform and border protection. Thus, the odds are that, in the coming months, the Supreme Court will ultimately determine DACA’s future.
  • “Divisive Topics.” Disputes also are being waged in state legislatures and the courts on bills, statutes, and executive orders that restrict what may be taught in college classrooms about race, the legacy of slavery, and other hot-button issues—notably state efforts to outlaw or curtail legal abortion following the Supreme Court decision to overturn a constitutional right to terminate pregnancies. With long legal battles likely to ensure in state and federal courts, none of these issues will be settled soon.

Political Intrusion

Real or perceived threats to independent board governance, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom are likely to intensify as state lawmakers fight over funding for diversity programs and what public schools and colleges can teach about race and gender. Dozens of bills have been introduced and some enacted in red states to counter what conservatives view as ideological “indoctrination” of students by largely liberal faculty members and to protect the free speech rights of those who claim they are muzzled by the “woke” majority. As long as politicians perceive an advantage in attacking what they regard as liberal bias on campuses, expect higher education to remain a punching bag in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Federal and State Funding

There was some good news on the financial front for college and university presidents and their governing boards at the outset of 2023. While it took years for state spending on higher education to rebound after the Great Recession of 2008, the near-term outlook for state budgets is positive. A survey by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found “cautious optimism” among public higher education leaders.

The outlook for federal funding, however, is cloudy. The federal omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2023, enacted while both houses of Congress were still in the hands of Democrats, raised funding across the board for programs that benefit higher education, including Pell Grants and scientific research. But the House is now in Republican hands, with GOP lawmakers’ insisting on large cuts as the price to pay for lifting the $31-trillion ceiling on federal debt. Uncertainty over when and how the U.S. Treasury will avert default by summer 2023 adds to fears that the economy could nosedive, jeopardizing college budgets and enrollments along with much else.

College Athletics

College sports will also most likely continue to be the subject of legislative activity and legal decisions. As a result of a 2021 decision by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to allow students to be paid by for marketing their name, image and likeness, some student athletes are now being compensated. Numerous states also have enacted variants of California’s 2019 Fair Pay to Play Act, and Congress may soon want to jump into the regulatory act, as well, and enact legislation to supersede those state statutes.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board office in Los Angeles in December 2022 ruled that college athletes can be classified as employees with the right to unionize. In addition, on yet another athletics-related front, presidents and boards will be forced to grapple with the rapid-fire spread of legalized sports gambling on both collegiate and professional games.

And the jump by football teams to conferences far from home demonstrate how intent universities are on maximizing television ratings and revenues, despite subjecting players to more transcontinental flights and time away from campus. Such moves could expose the vulnerabilities of big-time collegiate sports to further political or judicial scrutiny.


AGB thanks the following  advisory group members who added value to the manuscript through their questions and comments, which proved invaluable in strengthening the final report.

  • Chris Connell, writer, freelance
  • Sarah Flanagan, vice president of government relations & policy development, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)
  • Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO)
  • Vic Klatt, principal, Penn Hill Group
  • Richard Novak, senior fellow and senior consultant, AGB
  • Tim McDonough, vice chancellor for communications and marketing, University System of Maryland
  • Barmak Nassirian, vice president for higher education policy, Veteran Education Success
  • Matt Owens, president, Council of Governmental Relations (COGR)
  • Sarah Spreitzer, assistant vice president and chief of staff of government relations, American Council on Education (ACE)
  • Natalie T. Sinicrope, deputy CEO & executive director of legal resources, National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA)