Public Purpose Magazine, Summer 2014
2014 Summer PP cover

Legislators Flex Some MuscleIn some states, legislators are showing greater willingness to criticize higher education—and sometimes to back their critiques with legislative action. Is this a new era of governmental intrusion?By Stephen G. Pelletier
In South Carolina, legislators use the power of the purse to express their displeasure over campus discussions of LGBT issues. In Michigan, university involvement in a program on labor organizing draws legislative scrutiny and threatened budget cuts. In Kansas, legislators outraged over a professor’s tweet are said to be part of the impetus behind a new policy about 
In some states, legislators are showing greater willingness to criticize higher education—and sometimes to back their critiques with legislative action. Is this a new era of governmental intrusion? what university employees can say on social media. In Texas, hostile politicians angle to unseat the president of the state’s flagship university. 

Anecdotal evidence from across the country suggests that some legislators are getting more vocal in their criticisms of higher education—and more willing to put some bite in their critiques through legislation. Even though the evidence of such actions is episodic rather than routine—at least so far—the existing examples raise essential questions. Are we entering a new era of governmental intrusion? Should public universities steel themselves for greater legislative interference? And perhaps more to the point, how can presidents of AASCU institutions best navigate today’s sometimes more roiled political waters?

Students and the Political Process:How AASCU Institutions Facilitate Voter Engagement and Civic ParticipationBy Michelle R. Davis

Colleges and universities are acting to boost civic engagement in the political process among students by tapping into high-tech voter registration technology, creating virtual and courtyard democracy discussions, and finding ways to help students learn more about the topics and candidates they’re voting on.

While colleges have long had a focus on service-learning and have established structures to foster those pursuits, more campuses are starting to emphasize the idea that being an engaged citizen means participating in the political process in an informed way. Voting, talking about the issues of the day from a local, national and international perspective, and researching those issues are all part of that process.

College campuses—with their emphasis on new ideas, intellectual curiosity, and learning about the world—are the perfect places to form lifetime habits surrounding civic engagement, said Nancy Thomas, the director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University (Mass.).

“We have a democracy that is not functioning the way it should be functioning,” Thomas said, citing social and socioeconomic inequalities, struggling government services and Washington gridlock. “Higher education needs to step up to the plate and focus on college student political engagement, social activism and community organizing. Those things are not taught and encouraged at the rate needed, given the state of our democracy.”

AASCU’s Federal/State Partnership ProposalBy Barmak Nassirian
One of the perennial ironies of federal aid programs has been their failure to dovetail with policy choices of the other major players in higher education: the states. Federal aid programs have not only been oblivious to state funding practices over the course of the past three decades, one could even argue that in the absence of explicit linkages, the two have worked at cross purposes: The more generous and readily available federal aid has become, the more of an incentive it might have provided for states to withdraw support from public higher education. Whatever we think of the “cost-disease” of higher education, in terms of basic drivers of tuition inflation, there can be no doubt that state disinvestment in public higher ed has driven up costs by reducing state subsidies and shifting the burden to students’ shoulders.

With outstanding educational debt now exceeding $1.3 trillion, and with national concerns about income inequality, Congress and the administration have been searching for policy proposals that promote college affordability. While some of these have centered on innovation and on attempts at cost containment, better alignment of federal and state funding practices would be the most effective way to mitigate tuition inflation for the overwhelming majority of students who access higher education at public institutions.

Snapshot: Project Degree CompletionSalem State UniversityBy Patricia Maguire Meservey
A 2011 Harvard Graduate School of Education study revealed that only slightly over half of American college students complete their bachelor’s degree requirements within six years. More distressing is the fact that, “among the 18 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States comes in last for the percentage of students who complete college once they begin.”

At Salem State University (Mass.), we find these numbers unacceptable—and are implementing the strategies, tools, innovative thinking, and resources to reverse the trend. We have established retention and graduation rate goals that will require significant gains over the next 10 years, and our participation in Project Degree Completion will help us achieve them.