What a refreshing twist. America’s state legislators, those who serve as your elected officials in the 50 state capitals, have stepped up to the plate on higher education.
Resisting the oft-used temptation to blame some other body, or the other party, or unforeseen circumstances, as the cause for a political problem, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in a blistering report on the state of American higher education, lays the blame squarely in its own hands.
The report, entitled “Transforming Higher Education: National Imperative – State Responsibility,” consists of recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission on higher education policy, made up of legislators from a cross-section of the states.
The recommendations are as hard-hitting as the language employed in the report’s opening paragraphs: “There is a crisis in American higher education,” the commission writes. “It has crept up on us quickly. It is of significant importance to our future, but the nation is not prepared to address it.”
“It is up to the states – and specifically state legislatures – to alter the course of higher education,” the report continues. “States bear major responsibility for higher education, spending approximately $70 billion each year on the venture. But states are not maximizing that investment and in this rapidly changing, highly competitive and global environment, it is imperative to do better!”
Why is this admission of fault so refreshing?
Having spent time earlier in my career as a legislative aide in Washington, for members of Congress from two different states, it stuck with me that state legislators are quick to point a finger at Washington and scream “it’s the fault of Congress” when less-than-expected funding is made available for this initiative or that.
Not this time. In a scathing self-criticism, the NCSL panel, consisting of six Democrats and six Republicans, writes: “State legislators have not prioritized higher education in the public agenda or taken an active role in seeking reform,” nor have state legislators exhibited “forward-thinking leadership on higher education policy.”
In a particularly pointed comment on their own collective shortcomings, the panel concludes: “Rather than making long-term strategic policy decisions, higher education policy is based on reaction to the latest budget crisis or policy fads,” while “legislators have been satisfied to let others take leadership.”
When I had the opportunity to testify before the U.S. Congress during hearings on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, I suggested to members that they had every right to point the finger toward state capitals, pointing out “that state support has been falling as a percentage of university budgets for 20 years, in good economic times and bad.”
I have to admit, though, that I didn’t think state legislators would actually accept responsibility, and, if so, never would I have dreamed that they would do so in such a sweeping and public manner.
Now, of course, the challenge before us as constituents of the 50 state legislatures, is to keep the feet of our representatives to the fire. Midway through the report, there is a very telling sentence, inserted almost as an afterthought. It reads: “There is no outcry of public opinion about the quality of the system.”
Sadly, the blue-ribbon panel is right. But now is not the time to say woulda, coulda, shoulda. Our group has been in existence for just a few years, we are based near Washington, DC, and we have been concentrating the bulk of our efforts in the halls of Congress and the Administration. We’ve had some limited success so far, and we are poised to do even more.
Now, we – and that means you – have been issued an open invitation. As the commission itself writes, “We believe that legislators have a responsibility to their states and their citizens to assert their leadership on this important issue and lead a statewide movement for reform.”
The specific issues to be dealt with are a bit different in every state, but the overriding concern, according to the report, are the same across the country: the price of college continues to go up, and the quality of the education is not keeping pace.
Thank goodness that we have at least one group of elected officials who have the courage to make this point. Now it is up to us to ensure that they have the conviction to back a statement up with action.
Share your thoughts on the college-cost issue, specifically what should be done in your state, in Hoverings, the College Parents of America Blog for Current and Future College Parents.