How Goes the Reforming?

<好色先生TV>State policymakers have been anticipating the concerns of higher-ed executives nationwide.

As we are in the midst of the short session of the North Carolina legislature, which typically focuses on budgetary matters, we haven鈥檛 seen much that pertains to higher education. However, higher-ed policy and governance remain hot topics throughout the state and nation. A November from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) gathered data to predict the 鈥渢op state policy priorities for 2024.鈥 How might SHEEO鈥檚 top priority trends correlate to actions being taken by the North Carolina legislature and/or the state鈥檚 public colleges and universities?

Made up of responses from 41 of the organization鈥檚 62 members, the SHEEO survey compiled the top 10 priorities of higher-education policy executives for 2024. They are:

1. Economic and Workforce Development
2. State Operating Support for Public Colleges and Universities
3. Higher Education鈥檚 Value Proposition
4. College Affordability
5. State Funding for Financial Aid Programs
6. Public Perception of Higher Education
7. College Completion/Student Success
8. Enrollment Declines
9. K-12 Teacher Workforce
10. Adult/Non-Traditional Student Success

Economic and Workforce Development

SHEEO鈥檚 number-one policy priority has remained the same for two years: economic and workforce development. Workforce shortages are impacting the nation due to factors such as lower birth rates and older workers reaching retirement age. SHEEO shares that, 鈥渁ccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently over 8.7 million open jobs across the United States.鈥

Workforce development has also been a main focus in North Carolina higher education, specifically for the N.C. Community College System. Presented this year and currently pending in the legislature, the NCCCS鈥檚 new funding model is designed to prioritize workforce development.

Nationwide, state operating support to public institutions totaled more than $77 billion in fiscal year 2023.State Operating Support for Public Colleges and Universities

State funding ranks as SHEEO鈥檚 second-highest priority, with 90 percent of participants marking it as 鈥渋mportant鈥 or 鈥渧ery important.鈥 SHEEO found that, 鈥渋n fiscal year 2023, state operating support to public institutions totaled more than $77 billion, accounting for 72% of total state funding for higher education.鈥

Here in North Carolina, state funding for higher education makes up a large portion of the state budget. Thus, state funding remains a pertinent factor during each legislative session. The survey predicts financial challenges this fiscal year due, in part, to many Covid relief funds coming to an end, as well as 鈥渦neven enrollment recovery, limited tuition increases, and higher operating costs.鈥

Higher Education鈥檚 Value Proposition

A popular topic in higher education, especially over the past few years, has been whether college is worth the cost. According to SHEEO, 鈥渕ore students, parents, and policymakers are concerned that investments in higher education are not yielding a good financial return in the workforce.鈥 In response to this growing concern, the UNC System produced a on the return on investment (ROI) of its undergrad and graduate programs from 2015-2020. Though not without its problems, the report found that, “of the 1,364 programs examined at the institution level, 1,263 or 93% had a positive ROI for students.”

College Affordability

SHEEO鈥檚 survey notes that some institutions are shifting the way they view the issue of affordability. Rather than simply a financial issue, affordability is, for some colleges, an academic-affairs matter. SHEEO again: 鈥淪tates adopting an academic affairs lens are pursuing policies that lead to more efficient credit accumulations among students. States are expanding access to dual enrollment courses, improving transfer and articulation agreements, and providing clearer opportunities to receive credit for prior learning.鈥

Rather than simply a financial issue, affordability is, for some colleges, an academic-affairs matter.The public university system in North Carolina works in tandem with the community-college system to help create as seamless as possible a transfer process from two-year programs to four-year ones. Additionally, our community colleges offer dual enrollment for high-school students through the program. Beginning in ninth grade, students can earn college credit at no cost, as tuition is covered by the state.

State Funding for Financial Aid Programs

Similar to general state operating support is state funding for financial-aid programs. According to the SHEEO report, 鈥淚n fiscal year 2023, states allocated a total of $14.8 billion to state financial aid, accounting for 13.2% of all state support to higher education.鈥 In most cases, this topic was ranked as 鈥渧ery important鈥 by state officers 鈥渨ith fewer or lower-funded, need-based state financial aid programs and those seeking to expand need-based programs.鈥

The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) found that, in fiscal year 2022-23, North Carolina provided nearly in state-funded grants and scholarships. This number is sure to increase dramatically in this and coming years due to the , which allows N.C. students from households making $80,000 or less to potentially have 鈥渢heir tuition and fees fully covered at any of the state鈥檚 58 community colleges or more than half of, if not all, of their tuition and fees covered at any of North Carolina鈥檚 16 public universities.鈥

Public Perception of Higher Education

Americans鈥 confidence in higher education has reportedly dropped significantly in the past several years, with a 2023 Gallup poll reporting only 36-percent confidence in higher education, a figure that is down 21 percentage points since 2015. Public perception of higher education can be influenced by a number of factors, including but not limited to political radicalism on campus, excessive costs, and free-speech protections (or the lack thereof). In states where issues such as these put pressure on institutions, 鈥淸SHEEO respondents] tended to rank public perception as more important.鈥

As the Martin Center has reported, North Carolina has already seen recent increases in free-speech protections, which are likely to improve the public鈥檚 perception of our state universities.

As the Martin Center has reported, North Carolina has already seen recent increases in free-speech protections.College Completion/Student Success

One issue that is relevant to legislators, universities, and students alike is the percentage of enrollees who successfully complete a degree program. Students with some college but no degree make up 鈥62 percent of [students] who have defaulted on their federal loans.鈥 Having to pay back loans without the benefit of career advancement from obtaining a degree often sets such students up for financial difficulties. According to the report, 鈥淔or these students, pursuing higher education can result in downward social mobility and leave them worse off than had they never enrolled.鈥 As such, one respondent noted that the definition of student success is being expanded by some institutions to include not only earning a credential but also successfully landing a good job.

Here in the Tar Heel State, UNC schools might consider switching to a different accreditor, such as the Postsecondary Commission, which, once approved by the federal government, will heavily consider student earning outcomes.

Enrollment Declines

Following the pandemic, college enrollment declines have been experienced nationwide. However, the relative aversion to higher education that occurred as a result of the pandemic is not the only reason enrollment has been of concern for colleges and universities. The SHEEO study argued that lower birth rates will influence projected enrollment for the foreseeable future.

North Carolina universities have not been exempt from these concerns. In fact, declining enrollment has been a major point of discussion over the past few years. The UNC System鈥檚 found total enrollment to be down at the system鈥檚 schools for the first time in nine years, a development the system has been preparing for by implementing new ways to attract students.

K-12 Teacher Workforce

The survey found K-12 teacher recruitment and retention to be a top concern for SHEEO鈥檚 respondents, many of whom blame 鈥渢he substantial expense associated with pursuing a career in teaching, difficult working conditions, and low pay鈥 for teacher shortages.

Until schools of education are stripped of their divisive ideologies, it is unlikely that meaningful reform can take place.The survey also shared that, according to a 2023 Learning Policy Institute report, an estimated 鈥10% of teaching positions nationally are either unfilled or filled by a teacher who is not fully certified, while a 2022 study conservatively estimated there are at least 36,000 open teaching positions along with 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers.鈥

While North Carolina had an estimated as of the 2023-24 school year, any solution to the teacher-recruitment process should take into account the politicization and general incompetence of university teacher-education programs. Until schools of education are stripped of their divisive ideologies, it is unlikely that meaningful reform can take place.

Adult/Non-Traditional Student Success

Moving up from the 15th most pressing issue in 2023, adult and non-traditional student success is the 10th top priority for 2024 survey respondents. The survey defines adult and non-traditional students by a few key factors: 鈥渢heir age (over 24 years old), enrollment pattern (delaying enrollment in postsecondary education by one or more years after high school graduation), financial and family status (having dependents, working full time, or [being] financially independent), or high school graduation status (did not receive a standard high school diploma).鈥

By encouraging non-traditional students, schools can help bolster the workforce by getting people certified for jobs for which they otherwise may not be eligible. In North Carolina, adult and non-traditional students are often attractive to community colleges, which can help students more quickly obtain certifications to further their career advancement.

While North Carolina legislation may not produce much movement on some of these issues in 2024 due to the nature of the short session, these policy topics will surely influence state legislation nationwide. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of many of them in North Carolina鈥檚 next long session in 2025.

Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.