SHEEO’s Open Letter to the 2012 Presidential Candidates

The State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) group issued an open letter to President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Change Magazine’s September/October edition.

In the letter, SHEEO President Paul Lingenfelter asks the next presidential candidate to sustain federal investment in research and development (R&D) and provide necessary levels of federal need-based financial aid. The letter also emphasizes the collaboration necessary between federal and state governments to raise degree-attainment rates and support the nation’s civic and economic development.

For its part, New England universities performed 7.3% of the R&D from all sources across all U.S. universities in 2009 , capturing more than $4 billion in research funds. In New England, more than 70% of those R&D dollars comes from Washington, D.C., a much higher percentage than in other U.S. regions. While the region’s research universities have been overly reliant on federal research funds, they have been underfunded by the New England states.

 “Virtually all the basic research in the United States is done in public and private universities, supported principally with federal dollars,” wrote Lingenfelter. States, he noted, “have been stretched beyond their capacity to finance higher education enrollment growth, spiraling healthcare and pension costs, and increasing corrections expense. While we understand that federal resources are also limited, there is no other source to replace the federal role in research and development.”

In addition to supporting R&D, federal dollars support hundreds of thousands of New England students through student financial aid programs. Total state need-based grant aid in New England was equal to only 21% of total federal need-based Pell Grant aid disbursed to New England students.

Although state need-based grant aid pales compared with the total federal financial aid available to students, public higher education systems across the country have found other ways to minimize the cost to students and support degree completion.

For example, the University of Maine agreed to freeze tuition rates at current levels in exchange for state funding, as did the University of New Hampshire. Massachusetts is piloting a “completion incentive grant fund” that links need-based grant aid to students’ academic progress.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Pell Grant recipients increased 51% and the average Pell Grant award increased 46%. As in the case of R&D, the states cannot hope to replace federal student financial aid. As diminishing college affordability butts up against the call for higher degree-attainment levels, state and federal governments must work with higher education institutions to enhance postsecondary opportunities for students.


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