Monday, November 24, 2014

More of This, Please

Although much of the debate about higher education policy happens at the Federal level, the decisions that matter the most on the ground are usually made by the states.  That’s why I was so pleased to see this piece by Jessica Bowen, of the New America Foundation.

It’s a compare-and-contrast essay, of all things, looking at the plans offered by the Center for American Progress and the AASCU on guiding Federal policy to encourage greater investment in public higher education by states.  It breaks down the two proposals in simple and direct ways, noting the appeal and the shortcomings of each.  

In other words, it makes complicated policy proposals on a key issue legible.  This is no small thing.  In fact, it could be a first step towards much more productive proposals.

Federalism isn’t the sexiest topic, but it underlies many of the hot-button issues in American politics.  In the case of higher education, there’s an odd separation of responsibility: most student financial aid (and most research funding) are controlled at the Federal level, but most operating appropriations come from the states (and, in some states, from localities).  That has a subtle but important effect.

State disinvestment is partly compensated by increased Federal investment, through the indirect mechanism of financial aid. (In the research university sector, federal research funding may well play a similar role; I defer to my R1 colleagues on that.)  As public colleges and university budgets shift from state support to student tuition, they effectively shift from state and local aid to federal aid.  After decades of that, it’s unsurprising to see the feds want to have more influence.  After all, they’re paying.

But the influence can have unintended effects, since the states (and localities, where relevant) are independent actors with interests of their own.  A federal desire to support more robust public higher education can easily be defeated by states’ preferences.  That’s especially true when higher education has an alternative revenue stream -- students -- and many of the other sectors on which states spend money, don’t.  Local aid, K-12 education, and corrections don’t generate revenue in the same way that colleges do.  At the state and local levels, it can be tempting to use federal support for higher ed -- even in its indirect form -- as license to shift state money to other things.  

To my mind, the really crucial question for federal education policy is how to work with the states and localities.  Ignoring them results in defeated intentions.

It isn’t as simple as bribery.  Bribery worked reasonably well in the case of raising the drinking age.  Back then, the feds threatened to withhold interstate highway funding unless states raised the drinking age to 21.  Louisiana held out the longest, if I recall, but most states fell into line fairly quickly.  Bribery fell flat in the case of Obamacare, though, in which several states turned down free money from the feds to expand health insurance, just to make an ideological point.  In terms of complexity, competing goals, and cost spirals, higher education is much closer to health care than to highway construction.

“Maintenance of Effort” requirements -- basically, requiring states to keep up a certain level of funding in a given category as a condition of getting more money -- can work, but again, the Obamacare case suggests that some states will leave free money on the table to make a point.  

As policy dilemmas go, this one is high-stakes, expensive, and difficult.  It isn’t as easy as calling for “more.”  In this context, Bowen’s piece strikes me as exemplary of the kind of work we need to see much more often.   Making a complicated issue simple enough to enable thoughtful discussion doesn’t guarantee a good result, but it enables progress towards one.  More of this, please.