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How Higher Ed Act can address college affordability through state partnerships

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As policymakers stand back to witness the impacts of tax reform on the American economy, the dark days of the Great Recession seem to be in the rearview mirror. And while the nation has rebounded in many ways since the 2008 downturn, some institutions—such as higher education—have been slow to heal.

Fortunately, Congress has signaled it’s willing to take meaningful steps to accelerate recovery by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. And while there’s consensus about the problems that mire postsecondary education, continuing to propel America’s economy forward will require innovative, bipartisan solutions that address higher education’s affordability challenges and meet the needs of today’s students, employers and society. 

{mosads}For their part, states have responded to the urgency for a more educated population to meet workforce demands by first setting ambitious postsecondary attainment goals. Forty-one states have articulated bold goals to raise the percentage of their residents with education beyond high school and drive future economic growth. This focus on increasing attainment has resulted in some states enacting new policies designed to expand access to public institutions while removing financial barriers to college completion.

But states—for all of the good work they’re doing—still bear the scars of the recession, and they alone may not be able to reach true college affordability. State investment in higher education declined by 26 percent per student between 2008 and 2012, marking the lowest funding levels since 1980. In 2016, although funding had partially recovered, it remained 15 percent below pre-Recession levels.

For institutions, tuition increases have provided a means to offset reductions in state funding—at a significant cost to students. Consider that in 2016, net tuition revenue accounted for 47.3 percent of total revenue in higher education, up nearly 10 percent since 2006. 

This increased reliance on tuition dollars most adversely impacts those students who can least afford it: our historically underserved populations. Coupled with stagnant wage growth, these funding strategies are fueling an increasingly large gap between the cost of education beyond high school and a student or family’s ability to pay for it.

Through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress has a significant opportunity to address the affordability crisis with the urgency it deserves by funding a federal-state partnership that incentivizes states to bring down college price and focuses resources on outcomes, especially for underrepresented students.

Under the model proposed by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), the federal government would match funds that states provide to support low-income students, with the goal of each state eventually meeting an affordability threshold. These matching funds would appropriately incent states to prioritize investments in higher education, especially for underserved populations. Examples of similar federal-state partnerships, such as President Trump’s initiative to address our nation’s infrastructure needs, give reason to believe this model could prove fruitful to higher education. 

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents, but also of leadership. As America looks to usher in a new era of economic and social prosperity, our nation should have confidence that our federal policymakers, state governments, higher education systems and institutions are working in lockstep to break down the barriers that keep people from attaining education beyond high school and a ticket to the middle class. Through coordinated, strategic partnerships with the states, Congress has the opportunity to not only address the affordability crisis, but also maximize outcomes for the students who stand to benefit the most. 

Dr. Robert E. Anderson is president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

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