Trusteeship Trends: What Will Be the Top Public Policy Issues in 2015–16?

By AGB    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

Every two years, AGB examines the federal and state public policy issues affecting higher education, publishing its findings for governing boards, institutional and university-system leaders, and senior staff to use in formulating responses. What will be the most high-profile issues in 2015–16? The following is a sneak peek at some that will be highlighted in the forthcoming publication.

Constrained Finances Despite an Improved National Economy. Sequestration will continue to impact the federal budget in FY 2016. Competing demands, such as affordability, student loan debt, productivity enhancements for on-time completion, and institutional performance and efficiency will battle it out in state legislatures, which will have little appetite for new funding or programs. Federal funding for research and innovation will not be a priority, and student-aid programs will continue to lose funding while Medicaid funding grows. Increasing tuition will be a tough sell to families whose incomes are stagnant.

Affirmative Action. Much remains unresolved and conflicting cases will proliferate. Factors include a recently upheld Michigan ballot initiative outlawing affirmative action, new cases at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, and a University of Texas case pending in the 5th Circuit.

Sexual Assault. Predominant questions include whether campuses can adequately and fairly adjudicate assault cases in a quasi-legal proceeding, how Title IX and the Clery Act come into play, and what the Department of Education will do with the more than 95 institutions being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights. Other considerations include pending federal legislation (the Campus Safety and Accountability Act) and whether state laws such as California’s “Yes Means Yes” (passed) and Virginia’s mandatory reporting law (proposed) will proliferate.

Access, Participation, and Affordability. Demographic changes in the country make this issue a high priority. State legislators are particularly concerned about affordability and student debt and are likely to demand tuition constraints, if not freezes. Community colleges may follow Michigan and Florida’s lead by pushing for legislation enabling them to offer four-year degrees in certain career-oriented areas.

The Completion Agenda. What do low-income and under-prepared students need to be successful and for states and the nation to meet their stated completion goals? Factors include declining state aid, controversy over Common Core Standards for college-readiness, and states’ defunding of developmental education and remediation, which 60 percent of students need. Should “success” be redefined to reflect what values and utility many students get from a college experience—such as new skills leading to a new job and higher salary— rather than exclusively a certificate or degree?

Expectations for Performance/Performance Measures. Transparency and accountability will be key in reporting state performance funding, post-college employment outcomes, education outcomes, and gainful-employment regulations. The federal college ratings system—the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS)—and the new proposed federal assessment of teacher education programs are expected. Accreditation (its rigor and independence) and workforce-readiness programs will also be under scrutiny.

Athletics. Expect possible congressional hearings and a congressional commission. The O’Bannon case, concerning financial compensation for the use of a college athlete’s name and likeness, will be decided by August 1 in the 9th Circuit. The National Labor Relations Board could rule on the petition of Northwestern University athletes to unionize. Federal tax reform could affect unrelated business income, charitable contributions, ticket allocations, and excise taxes on coaches’ salaries.

Federal and State Policies toward For-Profit Institutions. There will be more attempts to better regulate the role of for-profit institutions in higher education. The new Republican Congress may attempt to roll back the new compromise rule on gainful employment. Also, SARA (the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement), the multi-state agreement on state authorization for distance education, will be an issue. Twenty states have signed on but others are balking, for fear of predatory forprofit institutions proliferating in their states.

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