The current recession is unique in its severity and impact. But the responses of most states, and colleges and universities, have thus far followed the patterns of earlier recessions. For the states, the standard recessionary repertoire is severe cuts in higher education funding, approval or acquiescence in steep tuition increases accompanied by unwillingness or inability to assert public priorities for the use of increasingly scarce public dollars.
Most colleges and universities have relied as much as possible on tuition to fill gaping budgetary holes, along with caps and reductions of enrollments, and short-term measures such as hiring freezes, furloughs, and across-the-board cuts. Examples of each of these scenarios can be found in the state profiles in this edition of National CrossTalk.
Recessions certainly create dislocations, but they also surface and exacerbate existing problems. The findings of a decade of Measuring Up state and national higher education report cards, international educational comparisons, and several assessments undertaken at the behest of national foundations, converge on similar conclusions: Prior to the onset of this recession, American higher education was underperforming and was being outperformed by other nations; the U.S. was floundering in improvement of college access and rates of completion, in college affordability and in the educational attainment of young adults. In short, institutional and public policy strategies that explicitly or implicitly seek restoration of the status quo ante, even if successful, would only restore to a mediocre level of performance—and one that falls short of meeting the needs of American society for educational and economic opportunity, equity and economic competitiveness.
Earlier this year, in collaboration with several of the nation’s leading policy experts in higher education, the National Center proposed a set of principles and recommendations to guide policymakers in this period of economic dislocation. Governors, legislatures, governing boards, and campus and system leaders are responsible for setting explicit priorities, and we recommend that in this recession the highest priority should be placed on college access and affordability.
At a time when many states look to the 2010 legislative sessions, and yet another round of budgetary pain, these recommendations take on renewed urgency, beginning with their core principles:
• Establish undergraduate access and affordability as the highest priority for state higher education policy and support.
• Protect access. All eligible students seeking to enroll in two- and four-year public institutions should be accommodated by institutions that can meet their needs.
• Preserve the educational safety net by prioritizing enrollment capacity and affordable tuition at broad access institutions serving students from low- and middle-income families.
• Expect measurable productivity increases in education, both immediate and long-term, at all institutions. Do not micromanage the process, but insist on accountability for resource use and performance from governing boards and institutional leaders.
• Use one-time revenues, including federal stimulus funds, to protect access and affordability and to leverage improvements in productivity, efficiency and quality. Avoid using one-time revenues in ways that defer productivity improvements or create long-term dependencies that may exacerbate future financial problems.
The complete text of the policy statement, “The Challenge to States: Preserving College Access and Affordability in a Time of Crisis,” is available on the National Center’s website, www.highereducation.org.
—Patrick M. Callan