As state legislatures across the country get deeper into the policymaking process this year, we’re getting a clearer idea of how they may act on the top issues facing college students and families.

Not to say we know what’s going to happen: As with hurricanes, it’s risky to predict the direction of legislative action. Still, we can see the general outline taking shape around state funding for higher education, support for students during the FAFSA slowdown, and building better campus-to-career pathways.

We’re not surprised to see these very issues atop the list of concerns expressed by state higher ed executives. Just a few weeks ago, when asked in a survey by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) to rank policy issues, members of the group listed these as their top five concerns:

  • Economic and workforce development
  • State operating support for public colleges and universities
  • Higher education’s value proposition
  • College affordability
  • State funding for financial aid programs

There is plenty of overlap here: It’s hard to imagine a discussion about higher ed’s value proposition that would exclude employer needs and workforce development—or affordability, for that matter. And state operating support is clearly linked with funding for financial aid. As Third Way’s Ben Cecil said in Inside Higher Ed,  “​​These are a lot of very interconnected issues—It’s kind of like, which side of the Rubik’s Cube are we trying to solve first?”

That’s where the lawmakers come in, juggling a host of ideas—many helpful, perhaps just as many highly dubious. Surely, one factor in this mix is the public’s perception of higher education, which is No. 6 on the list of SHEEO member concerns. And no wonder: Gallup last year reported that public confidence in higher ed has fallen more than 20 percentage points in recent years.

The drop was largest among Republicans, 37 points. This tracks not only with the signs of greater skepticism about college but with the growing attempts to curtail discussion of topics around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking legislation and reported a few weeks ago that it is now following 49 bills in 23 states to restrict efforts to improve DEI.

My purpose here isn’t to focus on that legislation, which is followed very commendably by the Chronicle’s DEI Legislation Tracker.

I would just point out that higher ed enjoys strong support among some of those who know the most about it. The Chronicle poll, for example, found that 80 percent of college graduates said their degree was worth the cost. And 78 percent of respondents overall said they would advise a relative or close friend to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Amid the conflicting datapoints and viewpoints around high ed, those last statistics stand out the most to me: Yes, it’s true, as the old saying in politics goes, that “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

But ask America’s well-off corporate and political leaders what they want for their own children. They want them to have the economic and social benefits of education, of course. And many realize that more college degrees are good not only for their own families but for the entire country.

Let’s put it simply: America needs talent, as I wrote in my first book. And students shouldn’t have to mortgage their futures for a fair shot at middle-class security. Our country routinely provided this in years past, but now the dream increasingly seems out of reach.

That’s why this year’s legislative sessions matter so much. Most of the funding for public higher education comes from the states, which last year spent more than $112 billion on it.

Tom Harnisch, SHEEO’s vice president for government relations, was a lead author on that recent national survey of higher ed officials. He says the early signs are encouraging for increased state funding.

“Not every state,” he said. “But it looks like the economy is doing OK, and this year is not going to be a step backward for higher education.”

Again, economic development is the top concern for state higher education officials. And maybe because that ties in so well with the concern that students have about the market value of their credentials, we’re seeing a lot of innovation. Harnisch points to examples in Arizona, Indiana, and Hawaii:

  • The AZ Healthy Tomorrow initiative, announced by Gov. Katie Hobbs in September, is a joint effort by the state’s three public universities to educate more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. The program includes new medical schools at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, and an expansion of medical programming at the University of Arizona.
  • Indiana has launched its One Stop to Start hub for workforce and education training programs. The effort includes a new website,, announced by Gov. Eric Holcomb in January. Part of a national move to provide more one-on-one assistance for students, the site centralizes information on training programs and offers personalized help so people can navigate the system and make connections.
  • Good Jobs Hawaii includes training from the University of Hawaii Community Colleges in health care, clean energy, skilled trades, and technology. The Good Jobs Hawaii Navigator provides one-on-one support.

There are storm clouds, of course. The flawed rollout of the new FAFSA form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, means that many students don’t know whether they can afford their schools of choice. In addition, many state need-based aid programs have requirements that are based on the FAFSA information, and changing information could affect student eligibility for state aid. In response, the Education Department is easing some requirements so schools can work on delivering more aid packages to students.

On the financial front, the era of big COVID money is over for states and schools. Those funds helped higher education but also helped prop up state budgets in general.

“In a normal year, the states would have to make pretty tough decisions, but that money has helped give them a soft landing,” he said.

“Now? The pandemic money is close to disappearing.”

Later this year, we’ll know more about how—and how tightly—state lawmakers choose to link education and jobs. At this point, it’s just encouraging to see some general agreement about the growing importance of that connection.

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