New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Muriel Howard on Public Higher Ed

Nearly a year ago, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; Fastweb.com and FinAid.org Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance; Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm, on the inextricable link between higher education and the economic well-being of New England; and Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton on self-regulation.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Muriel A. Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. AASCU is a Washington-based higher education association of nearly 420 public colleges, universities and systems. In addressing both the challenges and opportunities that confront public higher education today, AASCU seeks to be a transformative influence in American public higher education through advocacy, leadership and service.

The context

The publicly funded higher education institution in the U.S. has a long history of serving the broader public, pursuing useful research and responding to local needs. Nationally, public institutions educate 72% of postsecondary students (though closer to 53% in New England).

Recent statistics show dramatic changes occurring in public higher education today. The Associated Press reports that nationwide, college costs have steadily risen with tuition and fees at four-year public colleges increasing nearly 27% over the past five years.

At the same time, the College Board’s Annual Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid reports show that state support has declined precipitously with per-student state funding for public colleges and universities dropping nearly 30% over the past five years.

While there is evidence showing some moderate increases in state fiscal support of higher education over the past year, public higher education is still feeling the effects of these declines in support.

With the erosion of state support and continued disinvestment of public higher education, the college cost burden has increasingly shifted to students and families and threatened public higher education’s ability to keep college within reach.

As many institutions struggle to respond to the financial needs and economic situations of these students and their families, issues of access, completion and affordability pose significant challenges to public higher education.

Howard provides her perspective on the future funding scenarios of public higher education, how state colleges and universities are coping with the challenges of state-level higher education budget cuts and how federal and state higher education policy priorities will affect public higher education in coming years.

The interview

DiSalvio: Despite data on state fiscal support of higher education showing total state spending for higher education increasing by nearly 6% between 2013 and 2014, higher education is still feeling the fiscal bruises from the most recent economic downturn. What are the expectations for increases in appropriations nationwide?

Howard: I think the increases we are seeing this year are good news for our campuses. It appears funding is becoming a priority again in some states. Hopefully, our efforts calling for greater support for higher education have paid off across the nation. But this is just a one-year snapshot; we need to wait and see how things go over the next two years before we can start to say we have a trend. States will need to find some mitigation around Medicaid cost, cost of pension systems and other state priorities.

It is important to note that in spite of the increases, we remain below pre-recession levels of funding for higher education. In addition, campuses have had to take on higher student enrollments without additional funding. When the economy is in difficulty, students tend to return to college to re-tool.

We are hearing from state leaders—governors and state legislators—that higher education is still valued as an important investment indicating they are pleased to be able to support public higher education again.

DiSalvio: With the erosion of state funding remaining as the primary driver of tuition increases at public colleges and universities, AASCU has taken an active role in combatting escalating tuition hikes at public colleges and universities with its proposed Federal State College Affordability Partnership. This proposal calls for rewarding states whose higher education funding practices align with the federal government’s commitment to making higher education more affordable. How would this work?

Howard: Basically, the concept is akin to a federal matching grant or incentive program, where the Federal State College Affordability Partnership would leverage up to $15 billion in federal student aid dollars to incentivize states to invest in public higher education.

The program would reward states whose higher education funding practices align with the federal government’s commitment to making college more affordable. We would try to compare each state’s per-student appropriation to the Pell Grant maximum award and the federal government’s level of support for low-income students and then progressively provide greater federal dollars to states that fund their students better. If states make an investment, the federal government tries to match that investment to help public institutions keep higher education accessible and more affordable. By teaming up with the states, the matching federal dollars serve as an incentive instead of a penalty. This encourages states to support higher education and we think this model would help to keep tuition more affordable for students.

DiSalvio: The U.S. Department of Education is pushing ahead with plans to develop an informational college rating system by the 2015 academic year. What is AASCU’s position on the Obama administration’s proposed Postsecondary Institutional Rating System (PIRS) and what are your concerns about possible adverse consequences?

Howard: While we are extremely concerned about the administration’s effort to develop PIRS, we recognize that with public federal dollars involved, they have a right to develop and implement a proposal. The public is demanding more information and better quality information about higher education costs and about economic and educational outcomes.

We have been active in a number of listening sessions conducted by the administration that were held to elicit comments from the higher education community on the soundness of the plan. In our opinion, the higher education community should be heard and be part of the entire process for developing a rating system.

How the administration is going to come up with enough common indicators that form a rating system is going to be a huge challenge. We think they have to devise a system that will be facile and meaningful. It will certainly need to make a difference to students and families rather than just adding more noise to rating systems conversations. It definitely has to be something that is easy to understand, fair and accurate, and accessible.

At this point, no formal proposal is on the table so it is difficult to criticize something you have not seen or for that matter, does not exist. We will be taking a very serious look at what the administration proposes.

We know the administration faces a daunting task in developing a rating system encompassing such a diverse higher education community. We have many different types of institutions in this country and avenues for obtaining higher education, because we don’t have a higher education ministry or system in the U.S. In part, that is what makes our system great and the envy of the rest of the world.

DiSalvio: Some have observed that years of damaging state-level higher education budget cuts have imperiled public institutions’ ability to offer high-quality education at a good value proposition. How are state colleges and universities coping with that challenge and is there evidence that the labor market continues to place a high value on higher education?

Howard: Public colleges and universities should be commended for the work they are doing in protecting a high-quality academic core while at the same time employing innovative approaches to strive for academic efficiencies. At times, this has meant eliminating or changing some academic programs or supplementing initiatives to maintain that core. But our state colleges and universities have been unwavering in their focus on serving students and ingenious in figuring out how to use their reduced allocations to keep their institutions progressive and responsive. Faculty and staff should also be commended for the job they have done. They have had to endure deferred maintenance, furloughs, no salary increases during the past four or five years and cutbacks in operating support for day-to-day operations. A significant outcome is the innovations that have evolved as a result of these budget cuts. We have compiled these innovations and communicated them to our constituencies on our web site.

We maintain that a college degree has absolutely retained its value. It is reprehensible that some claim otherwise or challenge the value of a college degree. Our nation has always had a diverse workforce and there has always been room for entrepreneurship and vocational training as an alternative to higher education. However, the evidence shows that 84% of those who have a bachelor’s degree earn more during their lifetime than high school graduates. Research shows that college graduates have a better quality of life, their health tends to be better and they tend to be more actively engaged as leaders in their communities. And businesses and nonprofit organizations still look to people who have college degrees to take on key leadership roles in their organizations because of the critical skill sets that are afforded by a college education.

I don’t see a time in the future when a college degree will not be valued. While individuals may earn their degrees in different ways, be it online, face-to-face or hybrid, a postsecondary higher education credential will continue to be a prerequisite for entry into the majority of the positions that will be available. I am a strong advocate for individuals pursuing a college education. We all have employees who chose not to pursue a college education and it is very disheartening to see them struggling to advance. We also recognize the challenge people have as the required skills for our economy continue to require more educational attainment. We are definitely committed to helping adult learners but I think our message to young people should be: Earn your college degree immediately after high school and decide what you want to do with that credential because you will have a choice.

The entire world opens up to young people when they have a college experience. And it is not just about passing academic courses, but it is the experience of learning how to think, maximizing the use of knowledge, performing well and working with others. Evidence clearly tells us that this experience helps throughout one’s entire life as one goes into the workforce, takes on family responsibilities and becomes a civically engaged person.

DiSalvio: What federal and state policy priorities will guide your association’s government relations and advocacy efforts and how will these policies affect higher education academic leadership? Do you think the academic leadership will have to do its job differently in the coming years in light of these policies?

Howard: In some ways that will depend on which policies get approved. But certainly one of the most important stateside policies we’re concerned about is the issue of state funding for higher education. This is inextricably linked to college affordability.

As we go through this next budget cycle, higher education leadership will strive to keep college affordable. And with the demographic changes we see coming, we will figure out how to prepare for those changes. Leaders will need to be innovative, creative, and focused on the essential mission of public higher education. I am confident that we will continue to make the best use of public dollars.

We are still trying to figure out remediation and developmental education issues, so that fewer public higher education dollars need to be spent in that area. With that in mind, many of us in public higher education are working with our K-12 partners to close the learning gap between high school and college.

As technology continues to advance, state college and university leaders will be looking to technology as a way to help address some of the policy issues that confront us as well as allow us to serve more students and to serve them better.

A large number of states are looking at performance funding and using incentives to encourage colleges and universities to spend their dollars wisely while trying to keep college more affordable. For example, some states are reporting that many of their campuses are serving more low-income students and therefore receive incentive funding for doing so. Campuses are also looking at balancing merit-aid and offering more need-based aid. Our data shows us that our talent pool will be composed of low-income students so, as academic leaders, we have to start looking at how we better support those students.

On the federal side, a big issue is immigration. We support a strong immigration policy, particularly for those students who came to this country at a very early age, have excelled in K-12 and now want to go on to be good citizens, get on the tax rolls and contribute to the economic viability of the states where they reside. We hope Congress will address this issue and develop legislation that supports the millions of individuals in this country who need opportunity and who can contribute to our nation.

In regard to college completion and accountability, we have a Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) where participating institutions make their learning outcomes public and provide information about the demographics of their institution. Some institutions have expanded our VSA model and have produced an accountability report that covers extensive, comparative information such as costs/affordability measures and other economic and academic indictors. I believe we will see more campuses becoming more transparent in their accountability.

We have also been working with five other national higher education associations on a Student Achievement Measure (SAM). That measure, in part, will report graduation rates for all students who have transferred from one or more institutions. In tracking that data, we will be able to report a new graduation rate that is not limited to a completion rate for only first-time students. This enhanced accountability is consistent with our desire to be more responsive to our students, families and stakeholders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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