University of California President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a U.C. Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco in March. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

In its first few years, the Obama administration played a major role in higher education as the nation’s economy was foundering. The expansion of Pell grants for students in financial need, the provision of billions of dollars in stimulus funding for university research and other purposes, an overhaul of federal student loans to put the government at the center of lending — these and other measures enacted in 2009 and 2010 showed that Washington was thinking big.

Now, it seems, it is the states that are expansive. Or at least some of them. That’s a takeaway from recent interviews with higher ed leaders from the Empire State and the Golden State.

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, is promoting a new goal for a system that grants 93,000 degrees a year. She wants SUNY to award 150,000 degrees a year by 2020.

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York.
(Courtesy of SUNY)

“We have to move the dial on bachelor’s and associate’s degrees,” Zimpher said in visit Wednesday to The Washington Post. “The time is now.” Zimpher said she is working with state officials to harness public and private investment to help meet the target.

With 460,000 students from the community college level to doctoral programs, SUNY is a key player in public higher education. President Obama in August 2013 launched a significant initiative at one its campuses, choosing the University at Buffalo as the backdrop for a speech announcing that the federal government would rate colleges on measures of value and access. More than a year and a half later, the federal ratings plan is inching forward slowly. Some college leaders wonder whether it will ever happen.

(Read: Education Department releases framework for rating U.S. colleges and universities)

Zimpher indicated sympathy with Obama’s goals. “I’m okay with some kind of system of accountability,” she said. “We are here to help. We have done this.” Schools that receive federal funding — which is just about all of them, public and private —  should expect scrutiny, she said. But the details matter. “Now, how to get it done?” Zimpher said. “It’s hard.”

This year, Obama also proposed a federal-state partnership to guarantee that qualified students can attend community college without paying tuition. Asked about Obama’s idea, Zimpher said it represented a significant statement about the importance of connecting higher education to the K-12 school systems. But she said the Obama proposal has not yet become an agenda item in Albany. It also faces huge hurdles in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The nation, Zimpher said, needs “a comprehensive strategy to match our comprehensive ambition.”

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, moved into that position after serving as Obama’s first secretary of homeland security. Like Zimpher, she voiced no criticism of Obama’s community college proposal. But she asked: “What do we do for students who are going beyond community college?”

Napolitano, in an interview with The Post last month, urged the expansion of Pell grant eligibility to cover student expenses during summer semesters. The so-called “year-round Pell” was tried for a few years, but eliminated in 2011. Another priority: bolstering federal research funding, which was squeezed in 2013 by the budget law known as the sequester. A third: easing federal regulation of higher ed. Napolitano, who has some expertise in the subject through her previous job, said she believes there is room to cut regulation significantly without reducing federal oversight to an unacceptably low level.

Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) are in intensive discussions about the finances of the UC system. The UC Board of Regents has approved a contingency plan to raise tuition up to 5 percent in each of the next five years, unless the state provides enough funding to make the increases unnecessary. Brown has opposed a tuition increase and is pushing U.C. to consider cost-cutting and other measures. It is crucial to remember, too, that California buttressed its higher education system in 2012 with a voter-approved temporary tax increase.

The U.C. system enrolls about 238,000 students at some of the world’s foremost public research universities. California State University enrolls about 460,000.  California Community Colleges enroll about 2.1 million. Together, these three systems are a colossus with national influence.

Timothy P. White, chancellor of CSU, estimates that his schools have 3 million alumni and that one of every 10 employees in California is a CSU graduate. The system, stretching from Humboldt State to San Diego State, awards more than 100,000 degrees a year. Nearly half of its bachelor’s degrees go to Pell grant recipients. But White said all this isn’t nearly enough.

“California has two droughts, in my view,” he told The Post. One is a lack of water. The other is a lack of people with college degrees. Unless it is rectified, White said, this degree shortage “is going to absolutely kill the economy in California.”

CSU aims to produce 1 million more graduates in the next decade and raise its six-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen to 60 percent. Currently that rate is projected to be in the neighborhood of 54 percent.

White, like Napolitano, said Washington could help by restoring the summer Pell grant. He also backs cost-of-living increases for the maximum Pell award. In the next school year, the maximum will be $5,775.

Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, is an unabashed fan of the Obama community college plan, which would cost the federal government an estimated $60 billion nationwide over 10 years.

“Absolutely the right thing to do,” Harris said. Community college in California is quite inexpensive. State residents who are full-time students paid about  $1,400 to $1,500 this year for tuition and fees, according to College Board data. (For comparison: the range in Maryland is $3,300 to $4,600, and in Virginia, it is $4,100 to $5,000.) But Harris said that “there’s still an awful lot of students in California who don’t attend because of a perception about what fees cost.”

California’s system is by far the largest in the community college sector. It awards more than 190,000 certificates and degrees a year. State funding for the system fell from $4.2 billion in 2008-09 to $3.3 billion in 2012-13. But it has risen 20 percent in the past two years, to $4 billion.

Read more:

Obama’s free community college tuition plan: Four questions

Obama proposes college-rating system in bid to increase affordability

Duncan defends Obama’s college-rating plan; Napolitano had voiced skepticism about idea