Oakland, CA – The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) today released a comprehensive framework for designing a new federal-state partnership to invest in public colleges and universities, which enroll more than three-quarters of students. In Better Together: How a Reimagined Federal-State Partnership to Fund Public Higher Education Could Help Bring College Within Reach for All, TICAS outlines how states and the federal government should work together to increase college affordability — especially for low-income students and underrepresented students of color — and to ensure that the devastating cuts made during the Great Recession are not repeated during the next economic downturn.
Members of Congress, Democratic presidential candidates, advocates, researchers, and other stakeholders recognize the need for the federal government and states to invest together to tackle rising college costs and student debt. Today’s report outlines a set of key design principles that policymakers must follow to ensure such a partnership is effective in lowering costs, reducing student debt, and closing racial equity gaps in degree attainment.
Declining state investments in public colleges – particularly during economic downturns – are important context for why students and families face higher costs and have increasingly relied on loans to cover tuition and other college costs. Because states are constrained by balanced budget requirements, they are ill-equipped to invest in public higher education during economic downturns, when they face reduced revenues alongside rising college enrollments. Although states often reinvest in higher education when the economy improves, historically, these investments have not made up for the depth of spending cuts, including those imposed in the wake of the Great Recession.
“Our students cannot afford another round of state budget cuts like those made during the Great Recession,” said TICAS president James Kvaal. “We need to help states to sustain their investments in public colleges in good times and bad to break the cycle of state budget cuts and ever-higher student debt.”
Declines in state funding can also diminish students’ ability to complete a degree, as decreased instructional spending often leads to fewer courses, larger class sizes, and cuts in student services. State underfunding of public colleges and universities has also contributed to persistent inequities in college success.
“While every public college student has felt the impact of state budget cuts, the data show that low-income students and underrepresented students of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden from increased attendance costs and inequitable funding patterns,” said Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at TICAS. “Greater investment in college affordability and quality can help close these gaps in college opportunity.”
TICAS’ framework, which was authored by Thompson with TICAS external affairs and policy analyst Michele Streeter, offers a roadmap for turning the tide of state disinvestment and working to restore the promise of public higher education for all students by outlining several key design principles. To best increase affordability, maintain quality, and boost educational attainment, any new federal-state partnership must:
Prioritize greater affordability for low-income students, where research shows more resources will have the biggest impact on college enrollment and completion.
Invest more in public colleges, including in instruction and support services to help students thrive and complete.
Help public colleges better weather recessions, which are a critical factor in rising college tuition and student debt.
Address state funding patterns that sustain educational disparities by race through state plans to close equity gaps in college access, affordability, and completion.
Presidential candidates’ calls for “free college” depend on new federal-state partnerships, and Congress is considering similar proposals. However, it is not yet clear whether these proposals will include the mechanisms needed to restore public higher education funding, weather economic downturns, and better equip states to develop evidence-based strategies to close equity gaps.
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