Higher Education in the Spotlight

How to turn the lemons of bad news into refreshing advocacy lemonade.

Admissions Scandal. Major cuts to Public University System. Rising Tuition Costs. Skyrocketing Student Loan Debts.

Headlines like these in the past several months have continued to dominate mainstream media, and the corresponding effect will likely further stress public confidence in higher education. 

Even before this year’s high-profile headlines, a majority of Americans already believed higher education was headed in the wrong direction, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018. While additional surveys (such as New America’s ‘Varying Degrees’ study) have shown that community colleges garner the greatest public faith that institutions operate in students’ best interests and offer the greatest value compared to other sectors, the prevalence of negative news has a corrosive effect on all parties in higher education.

The loss of public support may result in further losses of state and local support for public higher education. Now more than ever, community colleges are becoming reliant on student tuition and fees as funding decreases from other sources. For example, the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees states that for FY 2017, student tuition and fees made up 52 percent of the general fund in that state. A half-century before, in FY 1967, tuition and fees made up only 14.2 percent of Iowa's general fund. And in FY 2018, "despite five years of small increases and steady appropriations in the last year, appropriations remain below historic levels after four straight years of declines during the Great Recession," according  to the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEHO).

From the presidential campaign trail to the halls of Congress, legislators are proposing major changes to the current higher education finance system. The proposals being discussed include broad debt forgiveness, income-sharing agreements, College Promise programs, and new accountability measures. Higher education was once a second-tier presidential campaign issue, but one just has to watch the Democratic primary debates to realize that the tide has shifted. The national spotlight is now squarely on higher education. 

Legislative proposals have gravitated toward ensuring that all institutions are held accountable for the behavior and performance of their current and former students. From risk-sharing  to student debt, leaders want a more responsive and responsible higher education system. It was typical in the past for public higher education institutions to be considered different than other sectors because of their missions and their support from public resources. But as seen by the recent defunding of the University of Alaska system by over 40 percent, just being a public institution isn’t reason enough to receive increased — or even just level — funding. 

What does this mean for ACCT’s members? First and foremost, it provides an important opportunity to talk about your institution’s programs and its students. Higher education is not a monolithic structure. Legislators must come to realize the varied and crucial roles our institutions play in meeting their local, state, and national needs. Nuance is difficult to describe in a pithy campaign slogan, but consistent and persistent education and advocacy can help provide the necessary context to deter harmful proposals. 

Your first imperative is to invite your legislators or their staffers to visit your campus and to meet its students. Students hold powerful voices in advocacy, as  they can best articulate the financial and academic struggles they face today.   

Second, use data to inform the conversation. The Department of Education has recently updated its College Scorecard website,, with new data to better reflect completion, transfer, and retention data. The federal data has significant gaps for community colleges because only students receiving federal aid are represented in earning data. Typically, less than half of community college students receive federal aid, and in certain situations only Pell Grant students are included  in the wage data. For wage information, it is better to use state data whenever possible, as it captures a larger base  of students who represent elected officials’ constituents. 

ACCT continues to support the efforts of community colleges through both advocacy and research. In the next year, ACCT will release a series of reports around best practices around adult learners, prior learning assessments, and upskilling. ACCT also will conduct research around short-term non-credit programs to identify viable programs. 

It is important that trustees and college leaders continue to articulate their support of community college priorities. Make your voice heard by visiting your member of Congress and talking about these key issues. Request a meeting on campus with your legislator and talk about the pressing issues important to your institution. To stay up to date on key legislative items, sign up for ACCT’s Latest Action in Washington alerts by emailing

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Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

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