Setting the Agenda: Key State Higher Ed Issues to Watch in 2019

The dust has (mostly) settled on our 2018 election season, giving way to a holiday season filled with tidings of good will and hope for renewal in the New Year ahead.  And while some of us may be thankful for a reprieve from the election scoreboard watch, the constant barrage of political ads, and uncertainty of who will be leading in key policy areas, it is important to remember that for millions of today’s college students, elections have consequences.  Consequences derived from the setting of policy agendas, where to spend hard-won political capital, and how-to-advance priorities for postsecondary education and workforce training in constrained fiscal environments.

In analyzing the results of last month’s election and looking for clues as to where higher education policy conversations are likely to go, it’s easy to focus on the federal election returns. We know Democrats took back the House; Republicans added two seats in the Senate.  While these races are certainly important in shaping the future of federal policy, the impact of the state midterms will have a more dramatic impact on education policy in the years to come.

To understand how the overall education policy agenda may be impacted, it is important to be grounded in the recent shift in state power.  Coming out of the November elections there are 19 new governors, including seven states that changed from Republican to Democrat. Democrats made modest gains in state legislatures, however, Republicans held their robust lead in terms of legislative control. Interestingly, Minnesota is the only state where legislative control is divided. As far as state control, which includes the governor and the legislature, Democrats now control 14 states and Republicans, 23.

As we consider what all this change means for today’s college students, those directly impacted by the education policy choices of newly minted and veteran state leaders alike, and race towards the dawn of 2019, what better time to offer two key higher education policy issues that state leaders likely will be running towards as we enter the New Year.  

Education to Workforce Links Will Become Even More Robust

As we prepare to turn the calendar to 2019 and enter the second decade of the national ‘college completion’ push, attention will appropriately turn more aggressively toward completion of specific degrees and credentials, in specific locations, by specific types of students, to support specific economic outcomes.  This maturation of the dialogue around degree completion has been driven by a growing awareness of the varying economic values of completions by program and across place; not all credentials, it turns out, are created equal.

This shift in focus has already been reflected in state policy conversations.  In 2018 alone, 15 states spread across the country enacted nearly 30 unique pieces of legislation addressing the topic of workforce development and work-aligned education opportunities.  More intentionally aligning workforce development systems and education opportunities for today’s students is a clear priority for state leaders and should continue to be an area where integration of state and federal policy – through for example the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, a reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act – holds promise to advance desired outcomes.  A more regionally-minded approach to policy design, intent on leveraging the unique educational assets and workforce demands of varying regions of a state, is an emergent trend to keep an eye on in 2019.

The Free College Movement Matures

The “free college” movement continued to gather steam over the past year, leading to a record number of pieces of legislation considered by states in 2018 intent on the creation of free college policy or program of some kind.  Yet core questions face the free college movement as it matures from policy proposal to enacted state policy.  How do states, institutions and students define free?  What revenue amounts, from what revenue sources (feds, states, institutions, philanthropy) are used to provide an education that is free for students?  Are programs to be universal? For two-year or four-year programs or both?  As the free college movement matures toward broad-based policy implementation, it will need to confront the structural, financial and political realities that create the policy ecology facing state and federal leaders. As state programs come online, and those in place move further down the path of scaled implementation, look for state leaders to respond to outcomes data that sheds much-needed light on the impacts of these policy choices – and to modify and restructure policy as necessary to meet goals or conform to budgetary realities.

Let the two issues outlined above be my contribution of to the end-of-the-year prognostications and predictions of where state postsecondary education policy will focus in the year to come.