Autumn Almanac

NEBHE’s annual fall meetings explored the federal Higher Education Act and aligning state policy with higher ed …
The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) held its annual fall board meeting last month in Mystic, Conn.

In a session on reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA), Sarah H. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), explored proposals for renewal of the landmark law and implications for New England students and higher education institutions (HEIs).

Enacted in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the HEA was initially geared to student financial aid programs, mostly need-based. The law is supposed to be reauthorized every six years but has fallen off schedule in a dysfunctional Congress. Moreover, the HEA increasingly touches issues other than aid, such as consumer information and, next time perhaps, campus sexual assault. If an HEI doesn’t receive federal student, it may not have to follow the other rules, which some HEIs find burdensome. So ironically, HEIs may have yet another perverse incentive not to enroll low-income students.

New England has a particular stake in the HEA, because the region gets $7 billion a year from federal higher ed programs. New England imports 20% of students, compared with a national average of 7%. Moreover, the public-private enrollment split in New England is unique at about 50-50, And the region has a large graduate school population (about $2 billion of $7 billion that goes to the region is related to graduate student loans).

A sleeper issuer, Flanagan said, is institutional risk-sharing. Rhode Island Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed proposed that HEIs should have “skin in the game” by repaying a share of defaulted loans by their students and graduates. NAICU worries that this would lead to tuition increases to finance the new fees.

Alexander the chair

Flanagan noted that Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair and former U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander wants the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) reduced to the size of a postcard with just two questions (down from the current 100-plus). The problem with that, she said is that FAFSA is also a gateway to state aid and institutional aid. And some HEIs argue that a simplified FAFSA will lead to more forms aimed at collecting the details needed to allocate need-based aid.

Alexander also wants to nix SEOG and campus-based aid programs, which New England has received a disproportionate share of—nearly 10%, compared with 3% of Pell money. He also wants to limit graduate student loans to $30,000 a year, down from the current full cost of attendance. And there could be an effort to federalize accreditation—important to New England, Flanagan said, because the region’s HEIs and its accreditor seem to get along particularly well.

Flanagan counted the key factors for New England in the HEA reauthorization. For one, the region can expect the deepest drop in high school graduates in the U.S. What growth there is will be among low-income students, who cost more to educate. New England will have the colleges, but not the new students.

Plus, noted Flanagan, only 4% of student borrowers have $100,000 in debt, but they have the lowest default rates; the highest defaults are among “non-completers.”

She added that external pressures are bearing down on colleges, including the business concept of return on investment. We know higher education has tremendous economic returns, she said. Liberal arts and practical arts don’t have to be in conflict; in fact, liberal arts should be embedded in practical arts.

Private feelings

This sentiment harkened back to an earlier session at the meeting, when Saint Michael’s College President-emeritus Marc vanderHeyden, a former NEBHE delegate, offered a passionate reminder of what higher ed is all about.

The once-central task of interchanges between faculty and students has become overshadowed by growing staffs in departments such as athletics and IT, he said. He urged HEIs to stay with their missions, not to become like “resorts.” His biggest peeve is a new political correctness to protect students from ideas that make them uncomfortable. “What happened to stretching students beyond their zones of comfort?” he asked. (Watch NEJHE for more from vanderHeyden.)

Several NEBHE delegates, including Chair Michael Wool of Vermont, noted that private HEIs like vanderHeyden’s should be fully involved in NEBHE activities. (Privates or “independents” have always been covered by The New England Journal of Higher Education and the Higher Education Information Challenge, but less so in NEBHE’s signature Tuition Break Regional Student Program, which is the predicated on tuition differentials between state residents and out-of-state students at public HEIs.) To be fair, NEBHE’s biases are also influenced by public-oriented appointments by governors; vanderHeyden is a relatively rare private appointment.

Revising Boehner

News broke during the board discussion of House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to resign, and the resurrection of Boehner’s political legacy began.

Even Flanagan, who noted that she was a lifelong Democrat who worked for Rhode Island Democratic U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, said Boehner has been great friend of higher ed. (Boehner got 0% rankings from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling and from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.)

Flanagan concluded her discussion of HEA reauthorization, noting that it’s hard to know how it will land. But for New England, she warned, the stakes are more than economic: They are also cultural and historic.

LAC meeting

Preceding the board meeting in Mystic was an engaging convening of NEBHE’s Legislative Advisory Committee (LAC).

Scott Jenkins of the National Governors Association offered a national update on 2015 legislative sessions and 2016 priorities. Jenkins said the focus in higher education is on affordability, need-based aid, student and institutional accountability, performance-based funding (adopted in some form in 32 U.S. states) and the value that degree programs have for graduates when they look for jobs.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, briefed NEBHE and the LAC on strategies for aligning higher education outcomes with state goals, including economic and workforce development.

Legislators on the committee asked if data shows that outcomes-based financing works. What has been the impact of national K-12 Standards on higher education? Why do U.S. colleges cost so much compared to other countries? What are higher education’s cost drivers? How do we handle declining enrollments and increasing populations of nontraditional students? What is the impact of online learning? How do institutional missions affect competition for funds among institutions within states?

Jones said that, except for Connecticut (where his NCHEMS has been heavily involved in planning), New England is way behind in developing goals. Institutions pay attention to dollars, he said. Outcome-based funding reinforces the conversation about goals. In making progress toward goals, look at existing regulations and take the outdated regulations off the books, he advised.

LAC finds its mojo

The LAC seemed to find a new groove on this, its second anniversary. Amid the exchanges of war stories and good ideas, LAC’s chair, Rhode Island state Rep. Joseph McNamara, urged four-year colleges to accept transfer credits from community colleges. New Hampshire state Sen. Nancy Stiles reminded the group that funding for the University of New Hampshire was slashed by nearly 50% in 2012 and had already been the nation’s lowest per-capita (sometimes in a race to the bottom with neighbor Vermont, where the state now pays just 9% of public higher ed operating costs). Vermont state Rep. Tim Jerman said the Green Mountain State’s latest big higher ed accomplishment was creating childhood savings accounts—what his colleague state Rep. Alice Miller called the “babies bill,” under which every child born in Vermont has an account set up to save for college. The sponsors happily proclaimed that the idea was taken from Maine.

That collaborative spirit was palpable at the LAC. They shared ideas and legislative models from one state to another. It felt like the constructive old days when kibitzing with no eye glued to the clock led to real progress.

This free exchange of interesting ideas was limited only by the logistical need to stay “on task” in reviewing the LAC’s mission and goals. (One wonders if an ALEC-style exchange—without the ideological baggage—could offer a digital or on-the-ground forum for the states to share their latest legislative ideas and efforts.)

On to the whiteboard, the LAC goals were reinforced and discussed: 1. Strengthen state higher education policy making; 2. Promote regional dialogue and greater interstate collaboration; and 3. Inform and advise NEBHE’s policy analysis, research and program activities An additional role was added for consideration: Serve as an ambassador on issues pertaining to higher education for state legislatures.

New Hampshire state Rep. Jack Balcom pointed out that when he went to the University of Southern California, it was called “the Harvard of the West.” That made Balcom wonder if the region could better capitalize on its reputation as a center of higher education. And use New England’s home brand in higher ed to attract students from the rest of the country. He help up the value the region has in its college faculties—an asset that is too-overlooked.

Connecticut Rep. Roberta Willis explained that the New England states share the challenges of declining enrollment and aging. New Hampshire and Maine have more people dying than being born, she said. How might we as a region address some of those challenges? Willis asked. The only growth we’ll see in US is in the immigrant population, she said. Some states have responded with in-state tuition for foreign immigrants. How else could the New England states together capitalize on this challenge? What other issues set New England apart?

Asked why the LAC was created in the first place, Willis noted that there was a sense that the states didn’t know enough about what NEBHE does—nor what their peers were doing across the region. The day’s lively dialogue seemed to change that.

Maine state Sen. Rebecca Millett, the LAC vice chair, concluded that legislative bills are better when they’re informed by what other states are doing.


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