Archived - Goals for Federal/State Policy in the 21st Century

Archived Information

Financing Postsecondary Education: The Federal Role - October 1995

Goals for Federal/State Policy in the 21st Century: Affordability, Mobility and Learning Productivity

James R. Mingle

This paper suggests that the federal government, in partnership with the states, should organize programmatic and financial aid policies to achieve the following objectives: (1) assure affordable options for postsecondary education and training for all young people and adults; (2) improve the mobility of student learners to move across state lines to access postsecondary education, and promote the "mobility" of institutions to provide access through technology to place-bound students; and (3) improve the learning productivity of students by assisting them in achieving a higher level of skill and knowledge attainment in the most cost-effective manner. Each of these objectives is closely interrelated. Affordability can be sustained in part by matching demand with capacity regardless of location. Learning productivity, in the form of more purposeful enrollment and more rapid progression toward skill and degree attainment, can also contribute to affordability through a more effective use of scarce resources. Mobility and learning productivity are also linked through recognition that technology allows the delivery of educational services in an "anytime, anyplace" mode.

The paper assumes that these objectives cannot be met by action of the federal government alone but must be carried out in concert with state governments, which are the primary providers of public support for postsecondary education. The paper's proposals on student financial aid deal exclusively with joint federal/state partnerships for grant programs and assumes that the federal government will continue to provide access to loan capital through the Direct Lending program and the Guaranteed Student Loan program. Although the writer recognizes that the changes proposed would alter the accountability mechanisms employed by the federal government, this issue is not covered within the scope of this paper. Nor does the writer examine the implications of the proposed changes on independent nonprofit and proprietary institutions, important issues which will need further study.


The net price, or cost, of an education to an individual student varies widely depending on the type of institution chosen, the income of the student and the income of the student's parents, as well as the availability of student aid. For the 11 million students who are enrolled in the public sector (80 percent of all students), affordability is most directly affected by the level of public sector tuition, fees, room and board charges, and the availability of federal, state, and institutional aid. Affordability also is affected by the ability of students and parents to meet these costs as reflected in their family income. A variety of authors and researchers have reported on the problem of affordability and its effects on student participation, debt burden, and persistence. (Gladieux and Hauptman, 1995; Mortenson 1994.) The declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant, rising college costs, and the stagnant growth of family income combine to make college less affordable. In the case of public institutions, recent actions of state government and public boards of trustees have added to the affordability problem. Many states, often out of necessity, have abandoned their historical commitments to low public sector tuition. Students who once were paying 15-30 percent of total instructional costs may now be paying as much as 50 percent of these costs. This reflects not so much a change in philosophy as the press of other state budget priorities, such as health care and criminal justice, which have put pressure on tuition to offset cutbacks in state appropriations. Future efforts of the federal government to cut the deficit are likely to further erode the ability of states to maintain low tuition policies. Estimates place the cost of deficit reduction on the states as upwards of $30 billion by the year 2000. (Sheppach, 1995)

To offset a portion of these costs to students, states have over the years created their own need-based student aid programs. In 1993-94, the states spent about $2 billion on need-based aid (as compared to approximately $6 billion spent by the federal government). While all states have some type of program, the bulk of need-based aid is concentrated in a very small number of states. Seven states (New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Minnesota) account for 61 percent of the total aid awarded (NASSGP, 1994). Although state support for need-based aid has grown in recent years, it appears that these increases have not been great enough to cover the increases in costs to students. The College Board, for example, reports annual tuition increases in the public sector for 1991, 1992, and 1993 at 8.4 percent, 6.5 percent, 6.4 percent, respectively. NASSGP reports median increases for state aid for 1991, 1992, and 1993 at 3.8 percent, 6.4 percent, and 3.2 percent respectively.

Principles for a New Federal/State Partnership

If these trends continue, affordability of college among lower and middle income students may become severely threatened. The result will be growing indebtedness and falling participation and completion rates. In order to counter this drift, the federal government, in partnership with states, will need to take positive steps to insure affordability. This paper argues that by using federal grant dollars as leverage, affordability can be sustained through state commitment to hold public sector costs down or to assure that need-based aid compensates for the growth in costs. The alternative to this approach appears to be for the federal government to try and sustain the purchasing power of its grant programs in response to independent pricing actions by the states, a daunting task to say the least.

One of the striking features of the current federal/state partnership in financing postsecondary education is its inconsequential nature. The two entities --federal and state--essentially operate on separate tracks. The federal government establishes its policies with no coordination with, or influence on, state entities. States, in response to their own political and economic determinants, directly set, or indirectly influence, the price charged for attendance at public institutions. A similar lack of coordination often takes place at the state level as institutional aid, tuition and fee policy, and student aid appropriations often respond to different dynamics. Few states have attempted, for example, to make up for the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant or have sought to moderate tuition in response to cutbacks in federal aid. Nor have state actions had much influence on federal policy.

This paper proposes to change this two-track policy setting. It establishes principles for the coordination of state pricing policy with federal aid policy. It starts with the assumption that the setting of tuition and other costs by a state or an institution is the determining variable in the equation. Influencing that pricing decision and subsequent state actions should be an important (but not the only) goal of federal policy. At the same time, federal policy should be carried out in such a manner as to ensure the flexibility of states to take different paths to the same end- affordability. Some states will continue to choose the "low tuition" route; others may decide to raise tuition and increase their commitment to need-based aid. The federal government should maintain its current commitment to need-based aid but use that aid in a way either to keep tuition costs down or to increase state commitment to need-based aid.

Improving Affordability through a "Super SSIG"

In 1993-94, the State Student Incentive Grant Program (SSIG) provided $72 million in federal dollars as an incentive for states to invest in student aid. Requirements for participation in the program include minimal incentives for "maintenance of effort." For many large states, it is an inconsequential program since these states have long ago "overmatched" the program with their own substantial state aid programs. The state of New York, for example, receives $6 million in federal SSIG funds, while providing about $600 million in state funds (a 100 to 1 match). In other states, the federal program is a more substantial portion of the total need-based effort. Seven states, for example, provide only the minimal one-to-one match required in the program and another seven provide only a three-to-one match. The small size of this federal program and its relatively modest contribution to states has made the program vulnerable to federal cuts and calls from both Republican and Democrat administrations for elimination.

This paper proposes the creation of a new "Super SSIG" that would combine all existing federal need-based grant programs into a partnership program with the states. The Super SSIG would have the following characteristics:

  • It would subsume the current Pell Grant program, campus-based programs, and SSIG into a $6 billion-plus state "block" grant program.

  • Federal allocation formulas to the states would be based on income and college participation factors.

  • State eligibility factors would be based on a state meeting a specified proportion of student costs among eligible students. As tuition and other college costs rise, a state would be forced to increase its commitment to grant aid. As a state's population of "needy" students rises, the federal government's allocation to the state would grow.

  • State eligibility for federal block grants also would depend on the full portability of the state portion so that students could use these funds at all eligible institutions regardless of state location (e.g., at all regionally accredited institutions).
  • Table 1 presents a hypothetical scenario for a federal/state grant formula. In State A, a high tuition state, college costs to the student are $6,000, to which the federal and state governments combined have committed to cover 70 percent of these costs. In the base year, the state's obligation for need-based grants is set at $13.9 million. In year two, the state decides to increase its tuition or other costs to students by $200. (The number of eligible students remains the same.) In order to remain eligible for the continuing federal grant, the state is obligated to increase its appropriation by an equal amount, in this case 3.3 percent.

    In State B, a low tuition state, the base year obligation of the state is $6.9 million, which earns the state an additional $14.1 million federal block grant. In year two, the state decides to increase its tuition by $1,000 which obligates the state to increase its need-based aid funds by 33 percent in order to maintain its eligibility for federal funds. In this illustration, the federal government has limited the growth in its obligation to 3 percent, plus the additional costs of financing 200 new eligible students. This action results in a shortfall of $4.3 million (unmet need). Given that the increases in tuition will be paid by all students, not just those receiving aid discounts, the state may decide to maintain or even increase its share of total costs. If the state does not, the share borne by students will need to be increased. Falling below a minimal share of state support could put eligibility for federal funds at risk. A reciprocal obligation would exist on the part of the federal government. Failure to maintain its commitment would free the state from its obligations as well.

    TABLE 1
    Determining State and Federal Shares for the "Super SSIG" Program: Two Hypothetical Cases

    State A
    Year 1
    State A
    Year 2
    State B
    Year 1
    State B
    Year 2
    Student Costs $6,000 $6,200 $3,000 $4,000
    Eligible Students 10,000 10,000 10,000 10,200
    Total Costs
    (in millions)
    $60 $62 $30 $40.8
    Gov't Share 0.7 0.7 0.7 0.7
    Total Need (in millions) $42 $43.4 $21 $28.6
    Federal Share .067 0.67 0.67 0.67
    State Share 0.33 0.33 0.33 0.33
    State Obligation
    (in millions)
    $13.9 $14.3 $6.9 $9.2
    % Increase
    Federal Obligation
    (in millions)
    $28.1 $29.1 $14.1 $15.1*
    % Increase

    Unmet Need
    (in millions)


    *3% increase over Year 1 plus $618,000 for new students (Year 1 tuition x 1.03 x 200 new students)

    ln this model, the state decision on tuition and other college costs is the determining variable. States choosing to maintain low tuition or modest increases would be rewarded with continuing eligibility for federal dollars and proportional increases in federal support. States choosing to increase tuition significantly would face commensurate obligations to increase state grants. If those increases exceeded caps on growth in federal funds, the state could choose to lower the share of need met by governmental support or use the additional revenue generated by tuition increases to maintain the 70 percent share.1

    An alternative approach to the Super SSIG would be aimed at changing the relative mix of federal and state contributions to aid. Instead of subsuming the current Pell Grant program, the current SSIG might be expanded significantly, say to a $1 billion annual appropriation. States with only modest commitments to need-based aid would be required to increase significantly their commitment (over time) in order to maintain eligibility. States would continue to set standards for need and eligibility as they currently do for SSIG funds, but maintenance of effort formulas would be aimed at accelerating the match. Some have suggested that the current ratio of three dollars of federal grant money to one dollar of state money be changed so that in future years, the ratio might be changed to three to two or two to one by increasing state commitments to need-based aid. The problem, however, is illustrated by comparing the current federal-to-state matches in two states, New York and Alabama. In the former, the $700 million in federal grant support is matched by $600 million in state support. In Alabama, the $135 million in federal support is matched by only $1 million in state support.2

    From the federal perspective, this would be a powerful incentive to make up for some of the proposed cutbacks in federal aid. From a state perspective, especially among states with relatively small aid programs (and relatively low tuition), this could be viewed as a heavy- handed federal intrusion.

    The Development of Education Trust Accounts: This is an idea that could be combined with the Super SSIG. The establishment of education trust accounts for all school-age children was proposed by McGuinness in 1992 and Armajani, Heydinger and Hutchinson in 1994. Such education trust funds might include state savings plans, service earnings and credits prepayment plans and other vehicles for individual contribution. Upon determination of eligibility for need-based grants, the state and federal governments would credit the individual account and the institution carrying the enrollment would make withdrawals. One of the side benefits of such accounts would be considerable simplicity and regulatory relief for institutions. Changes in federal and state policies as to eligibility and need would be handled by the state agencies, not institutional financial aid offices. Additional federal and state appropriations would need to be obtained in order to establish the endowment funds for future generations. (This approach is similar to the "I Have A Dream" programs upon which the current early intervention initiatives of the federal government are based.)

    Evaluating Future Proposals: Given the current budget-cutting climate in the Congress, there may be a variety of future proposals which, in a similar fashion to welfare reform, will seek to off-load federal responsibilities to the states through block grants. This is clearly not the intent of this proposal. This writer would suggest the following criteria for judging the value of state/federal partnership programs: (1) the degree to which they maintain and, if possible, increase the commitment of both the federal and state governments to need-based grants; (2) the degree to which they provide flexibility at the state level in maintaining either low tuition/low aid or high tuition/high aid strategies; and (3) the degree to which they contribute toward the goal of affordability.

    Achieving Greater Mobility of Students and Institutions

    In contrast to European countries, which are moving toward reciprocity, American state governments are systematically placing barriers to the movement of students across state lines. Many states have adopted policies that out-of-state students in public institutions must pay 100 percent or greater of the cost of education. Restrictive residency laws also reduce the free flow of "education commerce." Moreover, the distribution and utilization of postsecondary institutions varies widely across the country. Growing states along the "southern tier" and in the Pacific Northwest and mountain states are pressed to find room for their own residents, while states with stable or declining populations in the northeast and upper midwest have institutions which are desperate for new enrollments. The result is a national mismatch between supply and demand.

    The residency and tuition policies of states can result in both provinciality as well as irrational subsidy policies that work against the best interests of both individuals and states. Take, for example, the state of Colorado, which is experiencing considerable in-migration from other states, especially California. A recent in-migrant with college-age children immediately becomes eligible, independent of need, for a significant state subsidy to attend a Colorado public institution. That in-migrant may have contributed little or nothing to the state tax base that pays this subsidy, and his children, given the current mobility of the population, may not spend much of their subsequent working life in the state. At the same time, an out-of-state applicant who applies, for example, to the popular Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, will pay tuition rates set at 120 percent of educational costs and receive no state subsidy, even though that person may well spend the rest of his or her working life in the state. Moreover, that California applicant may have been motivated to apply to the University of Colorado, Boulder, because of the lack of space in a comparable California institution.

    In a 1994 seminar at the Brookings Institution, Gordon Davies, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, cited the expected growth in his state as a reason for supporting portable state aid. "This would attack two problems at once, one being student need and the other, how we (in the South) handle a tremendous amount of enrollment growth. Maybe it is that last piece (mobility) that makes [the Super-SSIG] attractive." (Gladieux and Hauptman, 1995, p.116)

    From a national perspective, promoting the free flow of students across state lines has the same advantages that led the founding fathers to prohibit the states from disrupting the flow of commerce across state lines. In fact, the application of the "interstate commerce" clause has some applicability to tuition and residency laws in the states as noted by a recent ruling of a federal district court in Michigan. (U.S. Court of Appeals, 1994) By acting as a counterforce to the natural inclination of states to reserve subsidies for "their residents," the federal government can be a powerful force for maximizing the effective use of existing institutions and by encouraging students and their parents to be able to match their education decision making with the national realities of the job marketplace.

    Bringing the "Campus" to the Student: In recent years, "mobility" has taken on a new meaning. The federal government should be a force for promoting not only the mobility of students to institutions but also of institutions to students. The emerging national and global digital networks, which can transmit voice, video, and data not only to remote sites but also to the desktop in a student's home and office, already is spawning a host of new and traditional providers to deliver instruction to distant sites.

    One of the characteristics of these emerging networks is that they show no respect for political boundaries. Already new consortia of existing institutions or whole new entities are offering courses, and sometimes complete degree programs, to national and international markets. This can be done over fiber optic cable and telephone lines that connect computers and video equipment to vast networks of information, data, and instructional programs. Add to this emerging electronic highway existing cable systems and satellite delivery systems and you have an enormous network open to educational programming.

    The options open to students are likely to expand exponentially in the years ahead, especially for working adults and place-bound students. This will create both opportunity and problems for policy makers. Students, for example, who already collect credits from three or four or five institutions in their academic career, may be collecting credits from dozens of institutions, compounding the problem of articulation and certification of credit and mastery.

    For the most part, states and individual institutions, both public and independent, have taken a "protectionist" attitude about subsidizing providers. While their own state institutions may be engaged in electronic-based distance education, state policy makers and in-state operators are likely to be suspicious of the quality of out-of-state providers and seek through regulation and subsidy policies to limit their access to state residents. In some cases, they may be right. Technology developments may open the door even wider for diploma mills to take advantage of unwary students. But at the same time, these developments hold tremendous potential for extending access to place-bound students and of empowering consumers to seek high quality offerings that meet their needs. It is this tendency that the federal government should support through its own subsidy policies and grant-making activities.

    There are a number of ways in which the federal government can promote both mobility of students across state lines and mobility of institutions to operate independent of political boundaries. The federal government should consider:

    1. Implementing the "Super SSIG" program, discussed earlier, with its requirement of portability to all accredited institutions, regardless of location.

    2. For purposes of student aid eligibility, treating enrollment in courses that are conducted at a distance or in asynchronous mode in the same fashion as traditional residential enrollments.

    3. Requiring (or encouraging) accrediting bodies to establish "standards of good practice" in distance learning in order to prevent low-quality fraudulent operators. The federal government might also increase its own "consumer information" activities to inform students of good practice in electronically-mediated instruction.

    4. Encouraging the courts to examine state residency requirements in order to prohibit restraint of trade and promote the free flow of educational commerce across state lines.

    5. Supporting through grant-making agencies the development of national and international networks of instructional delivery.

    Learner Productivity

    Student aid policy, while critically important, should not be the sole focus of federal policy toward higher education. Although the federal government has established an effective policy framework for supporting graduate education and research, there exists no comprehensive strategy aimed at improving undergraduate teaching and learning (with the notable exception of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education). This paper argues that the Department of Education should undertake a concerted effort to improve the capacity of institutions and the motivation of students to engage in purposeful and effective teaching and learning. Without such a policy, student aid funds are likely to be used ineffectively. It is no longer sufficient to ensure access in accomplishing national goals in higher education. Students will need to improve their learning productivity for the nation to remain competitive in the world economy and for affordability for all to be sustained. The proposals outlined below shift the emphasis of public policy and support in important ways: first, by building the capacity of institutions to focus on learning; and second, by raising the standards, expectations, and motivations of students to assume greater personal responsibility for their own learning. The overarching goals of these strategies are summarized in the phrase "learning productivity," coined by Bruce Johnstone, former chancellor of the State University of New York. Johnstone referred to the goal of greater knowledge and skill attainment from larger proportions of the student population in a shorter period of time.

    Building a National Learning Infrastructure: The task of building a "national learning infrastructure" is the task of the 21st century. Free of the paradigms of both teaching and research, such an infrastructure builds upon the emerging global computer and telecommunications networks. It puts learning tools -- both hardware and software -- in the hands of students and not only expands their choices and options but their learning productivity as well.3

    The role of the federal government in building such an infrastructure is comparable to its role in supporting and sustaining a research infrastructure for higher education. Through its grant-making agencies it can support and spread the development of learning tools, especially among the "have-not" sectors of higher education. Here are a few examples of how this might be done:

    1. Provide support for institutions to extend access to personal computers. A few cutting-edge institutions have concluded that the future of instructional technology lies with assuring that all of their students "own" their own personal computers (often laptops), which are connected to networked software and other services such as the Internet. The value of a personal computer already is widely recognized by those students and parents who can afford to purchase one, but the effect of all students having their own computer can be seen in those few public and private institutions that have mandated such ownership. The result could be nothing short of a complete transformation of the teaching/learning process. With the federal government carefully assisting institutions, especially those with large proportions of students on financial aid, it might well be able to operationalize the calls of Vice President Gore and Speaker Gingrich for greater access and utilization of technology. (Resmer, Mingle, Oblinger, forthcoming)

    2. Support consortial development of high quality instructional software and multi-media programming. New consortia, such as the one led by Rennselaer Polytechnic to develop materials for undergraduate courses in physics (and a whole new delivery mode), are providing models for replacement of the "cottage industry" of curriculum development that characterizes much of higher education. A number of critical problems that are the key to learner productivity cry out for a consortial approach: for example, the development of learning materials in remedial mathematics and language acquisition. Such materials might be delivered over "distributed learning" networks with national protocols to aid in the easy use and access by faculty and students. Given the way in which markets for textbooks and other materials have been developed in the past, it may take federal support to stimulate research and development in this area. Technology-based curricula require greater capitalization and broader markets than the typical textbook development process. With modest support, consortia of institutions may be able to create these markets and define the standards needed to stimulate private sector investment.

    3. Sponsor studies of the cost effectiveness of different delivery systems. Through such agencies as Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the federal government can support the careful study of the cost effectiveness of technology-based instruction. What mix of technology and faculty support produces the highest level of learner productivity at the least cost? It is a critical question if we are to achieve our goals of a learning society.
    Establishing Higher Expectations and Standards: The second major thrust of the learning productivity goal should be to provide direct incentives for students to change their behavior and expectations. Too little attention has been paid to how student eligibility standards for financial aid might be altered to affect learner productivity. Through a judicious raising of standards of eligibility and through the placement of limitations on length of eligibility, students can be encouraged to improve their preparation for college and their motivation to succeed in a timely manner. At the same time, at-risk students who currently have high failure rates can be given the financial support to obtain base-line skills without incurring large amounts of debt. The following changes should be considered:
    1. Increase the floor academic eligibility or "ability to benefit" standards for participation in federal student loan programs. Students taking remedial work should not be eligible for participation in student loan programs. Rather, they should be fully supported, if they demonstrate need, through federal and state grants. Such eligibility might be limited both as to number of remedial credits as well as time from initial enrollment. (See Hauptman, Mingle, 1994 for further discussion.)

    2. Limit the number of credit hours that are subsidized through grant and loan programs. Some states have begun to place limits on the total number of credit hours receiving state subsidy as well as absolute caps on the credit hours that constitute a baccalaureate degree. Federal policy can support these developments by placing a credit hour limit on Pell Grant and loan eligibility. Such a move would not only support a cost-effective use of scarce student aid dollars but could also be a powerful motivator for students to engage in "purposeful" enrollment and thus shorten their time to degree.
    James R. Mingle is executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, a national organization of statewide coordinating and governing boards in Denver, Colorado. He is currently on leave as a visiting fellow with Educom, examining issues of state investment strategies for technology. Mingle received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has served SHEEO as its director since 1984.

    1 In 1991, Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro, in a book entitled Keeping College Affordable, proposed a series of changes aimed at a similar objective of influencing state tuition setting behavior. Based on the annual instructional cost of an education at a public two-year community college, McPherson and Shapiro proposed a maximum $5,800 grant for needy students. This, they reasoned, would push states to increase dramatically tuition in the public sector in order to fully capture the federal largesse. Their objective was to make the federal government assume greater responsibility for students of need while allowing states to use the additional tuition revenue to enhance institutional support. In contrast, the Super SSIG proposal asks the states to increase their commitment to grant aid only in proportion to increases in college costs. It assumes that the states, not the federal government, will be the primary determinants of affordability. It further assumes that the federal government commitment to grant aid will remain limited in the foreseeable future.

    2 These comparisons are taken from data provided by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and include Pell Grant, SEOG, Federal Work-study, and federal SSIG contributions.

    3 This vision of a national learning infrastructure is articulated best in the work of Educom, a national organization concerned with the application of information technology to higher education. See, for example, Heterick (1994), Graves (1994) and Twigg (1994). For more information on the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII) of Educom, contact or call the Educom Office, 202-872-4200.


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