States balk at higher-ed mandate
The House has cleared a bill that forces states to stabilize taxpayer funding for public colleges.
Efforts to make higher education more affordable are on the threshold of becoming law. The House and Senate have both passed versions of a bill that would increase federal grants for students and crack down on problems in the college loan industry.Skip to next paragraph
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But there's a sticking point: The House insists that states maintain consistent funding for public colleges and universities. Governors and state legislators have cried foul, saying the feds don't have the right to dictate such matters.
With an economic downturn threatening state budgets – and concern that higher education is out of reach for a growing number of students – the controversy puts a spotlight on the relationship between state funding and public-college affordability.
"When state budgets are very tight, higher education is usually not funded [as well] because the perspective of a state policymaker is, 'Well, they can raise tuition and find the funds from their students,' " says Ross Hodel, codirector of the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. "The burden for student aid in the '90s and early 2000s clearly shifted from the taxpayer to the tuition-payer, and that's a trend that possibly the 'maintenance of effort' will help address."
The House "maintenance of effort" provision would withhold some federal money if a state failed to provide at least as much as its average spending for higher education over the past five years (not counting expenditures for capital projects and research and development).
But opposition is "visceral" among state executives, says Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association (NGA) in Washington. "This is 100 percent state money ... and it's inappropriate for the federal government to set any particular requirement on that money. States are sovereign."
Governors share federal lawmakers' concerns about high tuition, he says, and many are bringing together university leaders, boards of regents, and the private sector to find solutions.
Both the NGA and the National Conference of State Legislatures have said the measure could backfire. "In good times, states are not going to have those 10 or 12 percent increases, because they're going to be held to that higher level the next time there's an economic downturn," Mr. Scheppach says.