Sexual assaults, tuition fees and guns on campus on the agenda

Tension over tuition fees, efforts to address sexual assaults at universities and battles to reverse state bans on guns on campus will be among the key issues in higher education in 2015, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, or AASCU.

The nation's continued recovery from the Great Recession opens the door for moderate economic growth, the group says in an annual report, released each January, predicting top policy concerns for the coming year. But there's no guarantee that states, which have constitutional authority over public universities, will boost higher education funding.

“A sense of guarded optimism will pervade the state policy landscape affecting higher education this year – optimism in that stability has finally returned to most states’ budgets, but with recognition that this stability could be temporary,” says Daniel J Hurley, AASCU's vice-president for government relations and state policy, and one of the report’s authors.

“Any number of economic or political factors could throw a wrench in states’ higher education agendas.”

As in most years, the major fiscal challenge for universities will be holding tuition increases down while also maintaining academic quality and, in many states, managing stagnant or declining enrolments, the report says.

In the past few years, universities in many states worked out agreements with lawmakers to keep their tuition increases flat or low in exchange for a guaranteed level of state funding. Hurley doubts that will be as popular this year, particularly given that many of the winners in November's mid-term elections vowed to cut state taxes.

The most significant newcomer to AASCU's annual prognostication is campus sexual assault, a long-simmering issue that grabbed the national spotlight in 2014 and never let go as more students came forward with stories of being attacked, usually by another student and often in a social environment. Just as troubling, they say, their universities failed to respond adequately or appropriately to their concerns.

No less than President Barack Obama has championed a national campaign to push university administrators to do something about the problem. In an effort to fend off a federal mandate, the Association of American Universities, whose members include most major research institutions, plans to conduct a confidential survey in April, designed to document the frequency and nature of assaults on individual member campuses.

Meanwhile, the US Education Department's Office for Civil Rights plans to publish its resolution agreements with colleges it investigates for civil rights violations related to sexual assault. A few agreements trickled out in 2014, but with more than 90 colleges under investigation, a steadier flow is likely in 2015.

Even with declining state support, AASCU anticipates a trend towards performance-based funding to continue. Colorado, Iowa and Missouri last year passed performance-based funding systems, which reward colleges for improving completion rates and other outcomes.

Governors in Indiana and Montana say they want to include such metrics in their next higher education funding formulas. Utah, meanwhile, plans to triple its performance-based funding budget, and Texas officials are talking about a plan for its state universities.

Universities also are gearing up for a more prominent voice this year in the continuing debate over Common Core State Standards, which lay out learning objectives for grades K-12 designed to better prepare students for careers or college. Though not a federal initiative, Common Core hit political turbulence last year amid charges that the standards amounted to federal overreach.

Even so, 43 states are signed onto the standards, and the first round of assessments of students begins this spring. A recently established coalition of university leaders plan this year to split their time between advocating for standards and acting on assessment results with school leaders and state officials.

"The Common Core marks a higher standard of education for all students, and states across the country are beginning to see positive results," says Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and a founding member of the coalition, Higher Ed for Higher Standards.

"As communities, civic leaders and institutions of higher education continue to strengthen their partnerships with local school districts... the success of the Common Core will grow exponentially; our economy along with it."

Also gaining steam is the issue of guns on campus. Lawmakers in seven states have stripped universities of the ability to ban guns on campus, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and pro-gun groups are expected to target several of the 20 states where concealed weapons remain banned.

One focus will likely be Florida, where, a few weeks after a recent shooting in a Florida State University library, a state lawmaker proposed a bill to allow concealed firearms on campus.

Florida would join Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Mississippi in allowing concealed firearms on campus, while 23 states allow individual public campuses to set their own concealed weapons policy.

Colin Goddard, a lobbyist with the Washington-based Everytown for Gun Safety, says most administrators, faculty and students – "literally every constituency that could be affected by this policy" – don't want guns on campus, but that efforts to repeal campus bans are "part of a bigger agenda by the gun lobby".

Such legislation began to emerge after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 dead, including the shooter, who committed suicide, and 17 wounded. Goddard was among those wounded.

"Prior to the shooting, who thought guns would be part of my life or my family's life?" he says. "I was shocked to learn that it can happen to you anywhere."

Top 10 Higher Education State Policy Issues for 2015:
  • • 1) Tuition
  • • 2) State appropriations
  • • 3) Sexual assault
  • • 4) Veterans education benefits
  • • 5) Undocumented students
  • • 6) Guns
  • • 7) Secondary-Postsecondary Education Standards Alignment
  • • 8) State student aid programmes
  • • 9) Performance-based funding
  • • 10) Free community college