National Higher Education Legislation Focuses on Affordability and Workforce Needs

The cost of higher education, accessibility to higher education, workforce development, and college preparation have been the overwhelming themes to higher education legislation over the past five years according to materials by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). But in 2019 almost 50% of the bills enacted addressed financial and affordability issues. According to NCSL, “Compared with recent legislative sessions, this is a decidedly different emphasis away from overarching themes of workforce development and college preparation. Even when considering that 2019 was a “budget year” for many general assemblies, the change in attention is significant.” The 2019 report states, “Financial aid and affordability emerged as a new category in 2018, yet now appears to be an established priority.”

In a new series expected to run through December, The Wheeler Report will look at different areas of higher education, what institutions of higher education in Wisconsin are doing to address concerns, and legislation that has been passed. Each year, NCSL completes a report that summarizes the legislation surrounding higher education and highlights different themes or areas of interest.  Today, we summarize six years of national higher education legislation.  

Higher Education Legislation 2019.  More than 502 bills were enacted into law pertaining to higher education, and nearly 50% of those focused on financial and affordability issues. NCSL says many of the bills address financial aid, student loans, tuition and fees. The 2019 report shows that many efforts were made to increase participation from employers, workers, and institutions. Including granting tax credits to businesses which provided equipment, or tax credits to encourage donations for financial aid endowments.

According to the report, “Related to financial aid and affordability, legislation focused on student loans received an unexpected amount of attention across the states. Many of the bills were concerned with preserving the licenses of individuals who may have loan delinquency issues to remain able to work while challenges were being addressed. Legislation focused on creating state ombudsmen offices and “bills of rights” for students with loans to ensure loan servicers operated in a clear and forthright manner. In addition, bills focused on loan forgiveness or assistance to attract individuals to high-demand vocations, often in high-need locales within a state.”

Higher Education Legislation 2018. More than 840 bills were enacted across the nation related to postsecondary education, with workforce development being the largest area of legislative activity. Financial aid was a new category in 2018, and bills addressed things like College Promise* programs, state tax credits for federal 529 accounts, expanding access to open educational resources, rural health loan forgiveness programs, and providing academic credit for prior military training for veterans.

The 2018 report states, “College preparationemerged as a new category as legislatures seek to clarify student eligibility in postsecondary education. Enacted bills include the demonstration of proficiency to meet academic requirements, student eligibility for concurrent and dual enrollments, and access to internship and apprenticeship programs. Interestingly, legislation also encourages teacher training programs to include emerging research on brain science and cognitive development to strengthen the effective learning of children.”

2018 legislation also included efforts to increase postsecondary participation by providing for concurrent enrollment for on-campus students in online program, and eligibility for prisoners to participate in postsecondary programs.

Higher Education Legislation 2017. College affordability was one of the top areas of legislation for 2017; many states addressed tuition stabilization or reduction and capping student fees. States also addressed both ends of the age spectrum by addressing adult education programs, and dual credit for high school students.

The 2017 report states, “Workforce development emerged as a central focus across the states. Legislatures continue to seek ways to support and expand access to vocational training and preparedness opportunities. In fact, legislative categories throughout this summary indicate an overarching theme of workforce development and preparedness. The ability to meet a rapidly changing modern economy requires many approaches, and state legislatures’ actions prove this point.”

Higher Education Legislation 2016. As with other years, college affordability was a main issue in 2016, with legislation focusing on tuition freezes, tuition reduction, capping student fees, and encouraging the use of open resources. Many states modified their free community college programs, shifted income calculations, encouraged on-time completing by awarding larger aid amounts to students who were full-time, and creating state-wide emergency grant programs.

The 2016 report says, “This marks the second consecutive year student debt has been identified as a major category of legislation. States created tax credits, studied refinancing options, created a counseling program for delinquent borrowers and required the reporting of more information to help students understand how much they are borrowing.”

2016 saw many workforce development topics included in legislation, including bills to address internships, apprenticeships, and coordinating opportunities for students with local industries.

Higher Education Legislation 2015. The 2015 report starts out stating, “With a greater portion of jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education, creating affordable, structured pathways for students to be successful in college have become high state priorities. In 2015 college affordability was a top legislative priority as some states like Washington and Minnesota took the bold step of reducing tuition rates for the current biennium.”

Student debt was a significant issue for states in 2015, with legislatures passing bills to ease student debt through student debt refinance programs, and financial information for students to learn more about borrowing and repayment after school. Connecticut and Minnesota both established “educational attainment” goals to increase the number of residents with postsecondary credentials to address workforce needs.

Higher Education Legislation 2014. Legislation in 2014 addressed three major areas of college affordability: appropriations, financial aid, and tuition. Most states increased appropriations to institutions.  This action was a reverse of previous years activity which allowed institutions more authority in setting their tuition.

The 2014 report says, “With a greater portion of jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education, creating affordable, structured pathways for students to be successful in college have become high state priorities. In 2015 college affordability was a top legislative priority as some states like Washington and Minnesota took the bold step of reducing tuition rates for the current biennium.” In addition, the report said, “By 2020, the United States will be approximately five million college educated workers short of what the economy will demand.  Recognizing the detrimental effects a shortage of skilled workers could have on economic growth, approximately half of all states have set education attainment goals to help guide policy decisions.”

*Several entities in Wisconsin offer a College Promise – UW Madison offers the Badger Promise, UW Park Side offers the Parkside Promise, announced on Monday, Lakeland University offers the Lakeland Promise, and the Wisconsin Technical Colleges offer programs at several campuses, including: