WASHINGTON — As funding problems persist, state legislators are looking to increase tuition and raise admissions standards at public four-year colleges, making community colleges the primary access to higher education, according to a new survey of state legislators released here this month.
They also see community colleges as being the key providers of remedial education and workforce training, according to the survey.
The Higher Education Issues Survey (HEIS), released by the National Education Association as part of its Futures Project, included in-depth interviews with 58 education chairs in 49 state legislatures to analyze their values with regards to public colleges and universities.
The study was undertaken to address increasing concern over the future of public higher education.
“Higher education today faces a series of crises,” said NEA President Keith Geiger upon the release of the study. “Public colleges and universities [are battling with reduced funding], higher education employees are being let go, class sizes are increasing and state legislators are becoming more involved in micro-managing higher education.”
Although those interviewed generally valued higher education and wanted to either maintain or increase current funding and boost access in their states, few believed that the strain other critical services put on their state budgets would allow them to do so in the near future.
“Many legislators expressed serious concern about the level of funding for higher education,” said researcher Sandra S. Ruppert, of the Colorado-based Educational Systems Research who conducted the study. “Most believe that it is inadequate to meet current and even future needs.”
Those legislators were confident, however, that the slice of the budget pie going to higher education would remain stable in the coming years.
While most of the legislators interviewed are concerned about the number of students entering college unprepared, they are undecided as to how to handle those students. Delegating remedial education to community colleges was the most recommended remedy, although many lawmakers think doing so might limit access to four-year institutions.
Access could be seriously restricted by trends in reduced student aid and a push to raise tuition to meet budget needs. Other factors are the increased need for continuing education programs and the rising costs of staffing and maintaining campuses.
“At the federal level [student aid has] been leaning in the last decade away from grants to loans,” said Joel Packer, a senior government relations associate for the National Education Association. “The inevitable result is going to be decreasing access.”
Survey participants unanimously favor exploring ways to use technology to lower costs and improve access. Ninety-five percent said that there would likely be legislative action taken to boost technology-supported education.
“There is less concern about construction of new campuses than for development of technology for instruction,” researcher Ruppert said. “Where construction is supported is primarily for branch campuses and new community colleges.”
`Seamless’ System Pushed
Technology is also seen as a critical component in linking higher education with elementary and secondary education. The legislators generally agreed that there needs to be more cooperation between the various educational systems.
“The most promising finding is the endorsement of a seamless educational system,” Geiger said.
A K-16 system could increase access to higher education while assisting elementary and secondary schools in better preparing students for the next step.
The timing of the report is critical in light of increased efforts by federal lawmakers to give states more authority, said Christine Maitland, NEA’s higher education coordinator.
“It is very timely in terms of more power being given to states,” Maitland said. “What state legislators think about higher education is very important. As events in Washington unfold, this report becomes increasingly important.”
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