2014 State Legislative Preview

Julie Bell, Education Group Director, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
Jan 27, 2014 9:32:50 AM

The 2014 legislative sessions look to be extremely busy and interesting ones. All of the states except four (Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas) will meet in 2014. As of January 10, over half of the states have already begun their sessions. With 2014 being an important election year, states with initiatives will likely see a variety of pressing and perhaps divisive issues appear on state ballots (such as gun laws) and other single-issue campaigns could emerge to dominate legislative conversations. While at the national level, the intense battle for congressional seats and control of the U.S. Senate is expected to continue the ongoing partisan gridlock. Sensing that Washington politics has rendered Congress ineffective, many voters are looking to the states to get things done, providing legislators a great opportunity in 2014 to demonstrate their ability to innovate and effectively solve problems. As in previous years, we expect that higher education issues will see significant action, even given the competing pressures of health care reform, Medicaid expansion, hydraulic fracking, and infrastructure issues.

The overall amount of state funding for higher education is a top issue every year. Last year was an unusually good tax revenue year, and all but about five states increased state support for higher education. Institutions in at least nine states agreed to freeze tuition in exchange for more public dollars. Heading into 2014, legislators are optimistic but cautious about budgets and the economy. Legislative fiscal officers report to NCSL that overall, state budgets appear to be stabilizing and settling into a period of modest growth. However, many legislators are unsure whether this trend can be sustained, and many are concerned about how federal budget decisions will continue to impact states. As legislators make appropriations decisions in 2014, this dynamic budget environment is coupled with legislators' intense concern about the high cost of college and how they can protect students from amassing significant student debt while obtaining their degrees. Even with more modest revenue growth projected in 2014, we expect many states to maximize higher education appropriations in an effort to freeze or at least limit tuition increases.

In recent years as competing priorities have placed tremendous pressure on state budgets, many states started to reconsider funding formulas used allocate state funds. Close to 30 states have implemented or are in the process of implementing outcomes-based funding models. We expect interest in these models to continue, especially as states begin to obtain preliminary data about whether these programs are positively impacting student outcomes.  

We expect legislatures to continue to consider and enact policies to improve student access, success, and overall education attainment. Many states are thinking about transfer and articulation agreements, competency based learning, developmental education, and the use of technology to lower costs (e.g. MOOCs, online degrees, etc.). To improve overall education attainment, legislators in most states are looking at how to identify adults with some credit but no degree and help support their efforts to finish a degree or credential. Legislators remain intensely interested in jobs - providing more of them, making sure citizens are ready for them, and making sure that colleges and universities are offering the kinds of courses, credentials, certificates and degrees that align with what employers and emerging businesses need.  Legislators are also very interested in helping veterans.  This includes granting veterans immediate residency for tuition purposes and applying military experience toward college credit.  

Finally, as the availability of online resources for students continues to grow, legislators are concerned about quality and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the state and students are protected and well served. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is one important effort to establish standards for interstate offerings of postsecondary distance education programs and courses.