As we head into a contentious presidential election season, most of the dialogue we’ve heard from candidates regarding higher education has focused on the concept of free college. While I understand the sensationalism that comes along with the word “free,” it is a shame that the public has heard very little about the key element behind providing free higher education or even just maintaining affordable options: a federal-state partnership to incentivize continued or enhanced state investment in public colleges and universities.
This is a simple concept already used to encourage state funding for healthcare, highways and hospitals. Simply put, it leverages federal dollars to incentivize states to maintain at least a base level of funding for their public colleges and universities. It has been advocated by everyone from politicians and higher education leaders to D.C.-based think tanks and scholars.
Why does this matter? It matters because students are facing a cost crisis.
While many hypotheses about why tuition has increased have been bandied about, studies have shown that more than 80 percent of public higher education tuition increases during the past two decades were directly related to state disinvestment. In other words, as states backed out of their previous funding commitments, colleges and universities were forced to charge more just to cover basic costs and maintain competitiveness. The long-term result of this ongoing trend is that state tax effort for higher education (which measures actual state spending by a state’s total taxable resources per capita) is currently down to 1965 funding levels.
If nothing is done to stop our states’ strategy of distancing themselves from funding responsibilities for maintaining affordable public colleges and universities, Colorado will become the first state not to spend a single penny on public higher education as early as 2025. This means that Colorado children who are now in pre-K classes will have no affordable public college or university options in less than a decade. States that will soon follow include Louisiana (2027), Iowa (2029), Michigan (2030), and Arizona (2032).
The federal government currently supplies approximately $170 billion in higher education funding through tuition- and fee-based student grants, loans, and tax credits, while states provide just $75 billion. In other words, without a federal-state match to incentivize state funding decisions, the trend of “federalizing” America’s higher education system will continue to the detriment of our public colleges and universities.
A federal-state partnership is not a new idea. The Morrill Act of 1862, which created land-grant universities, is perhaps the greatest example of how federal incentives can encourage progressive state policies. Territorial lands and other federal assets were offered to states in exchange for the creation of new public colleges and universities. The outcomes of this partnership still benefit us today — increases in college graduates, scientific breakthroughs, improvements in disease prevention and treatment, and technological discoveries, all of which move our society and economy forward.
More recently, Higher Education Act reauthorization efforts in 2007 developed a federal leverage provision that was later added into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It allowed states to use stimulus funds only if they didn’t cut their higher education budgets below 2006 state funding levels. Just months after Congress passed ARRA, many states cut their higher education budgets to the very edge of those federal penalties, some within mere dollars. These examples are proof that federal-state partnerships don’t just work, they work well and they work fast.
As Americans, we believe in educational access and opportunity for all. But more than 200 universities charge the equivalent of the median American annual household income — $51,000 — or more. We are pricing our students out of their futures. Among the world’s most economically advanced nations, the United States has more citizens aged 55 to 64 with a college degree than any other country, but we rank 12th in college completion among 25- to 34-year-olds, and we’re falling fast.
It is our sincere and fervent hope that presidential candidates support using federal leverage to maintain public higher education as a means to achieve affordable higher education. The concept already serves as the linchpin of Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact, and has for some time. It also has been advocated for years by higher education associations, experts and policy analysts, not because it sounds exciting, but because it works. Affordable higher education is an American ideal supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, which is why those of us invested in the future of public higher education should recommend a similar concept serve as the foundation of any political platform.
If states continue on their current funding trajectory, the costs associated with any discussion about offering a free college education would be astronomical for the federal government. That’s why the federal-state partnership is so important. This partnership will ensure that quality and affordable public college and university options remain available for generations to come by rewarding states that maintain their investment responsibilities to public higher education.
While this is certainly the most divisive election our country has seen in some time, education should never suffer for political affiliation.
F. King Alexander is president of Louisiana State University.