When Florida Governor Rick Scott announced earlier this week the creation of two four-year, $10,000 bachelor’s degree programs in Florida, he could have easily been mistaken for another Republican governor named Rick.
Less than two years ago Texas Governor Rick Perry called on his state’s colleges and universities to create bachelor’s-degree programs that cost families no more than $10,000. The call set off a firestorm of debate about whether it was possible to control or lower the cost of offering a degree through the use of technology and competency-based assessment, or whether it was possible to find alternative subsidies that would drop the price for students and their families.
Perry and Scott appear to agree on much more than an ideal price tag. The two -- along with another Scott, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who unveiled his own higher education agenda earlier this month -- appear to be at the forefront of what could be an emerging Republican approach to higher education policy, built largely around cost-cutting, which seems to appeal to some voters, if not to the academy itself.
The three governors have much in common when it comes to their approach to higher education, such as mandating low-cost options like the $10,000 degree; holding down tuition prices, particularly at flagship institutions; tying funding to degree completion, particularly in fields deemed to be in “high demand”; paying faculty on the basis of performance, including how they fare on student evaluations; and likely asking the institutions to do it all with less state money.
With state budgets still constrained, college costs are a growing concern for the electorate, Republicans holding 30 governor’s offices, and many of these lawmakers poised for higher profile in the next four years as they contemplate higher office, it seems likely that the proposals seen in places such as Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin will spread, and could even form the backbone of a Republican agenda for higher education from the states up through the national government.
“Up until now, the argument over college affordability has been dominated by calls to action on two fronts: lower interest rates on student loans and asking taxpayers to pay more so state legislatures can increase funding to higher education a greater amount,” said Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank with ties to Perry and associated with the reforms the Texas governor and others are pushing. “What this does, this changes the debate to reducing the cost to students and parents, raising expectations about what the public expects from higher education.”
But the approach taken by these governors has not endeared them to individuals in the academy. Actions taken by all three have been sharply criticized not only by faculty members and higher education leaders in their states, but also by national leaders, who view the erosion of state funding and increased restrictions on what institutions can do a breach of the traditional relationship between state lawmakers and public colleges and universities. “There are state leaders who do not believe in public support of public higher education, and who do not understand what an education at a research university means,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities in a speech at the University of Virginia in October. Rawlings specifically called out Perry and Scott in that speech and in others.
Tea for Three
Perry, who was elected to his third term as governor in 2010, and Scott and Walker, who were both elected for the first time that year, all ran on “Tea Party” platforms of cutting government expenditures, lowering taxes and creating jobs.
Like all governors serving over the past few years, all three had to reconcile decreased revenues stemming from the great recession with increased entitlement costs. Higher education appropriations, which make up a large chunk of discretionary expenditures at the state level, became a target.
“There isn’t that much of the operating budget to play with, so education routinely becomes a piece of the budget that ends up on the chopping block,” said Christopher P. Loss, a professor of history and public policy at Vanderbilt University.
Loss said it would be a mistake to call cutting higher education budgets a purely Republican strategy, as it seems to be a bipartisan activity these days. States such as California, Washington and New York, where Democrats control governors’ offices and legislatures, have also cut budgets for higher education over the past few years, although recent budgets in New York have been more favorable to colleges, and California Governor Jerry Brown recently led a campaign for a tax increase that will reduce cuts to higher education.
Loss did note, however, that tying budget cuts to calls for increased productivity, something that Perry and Scott have done repeatedly, is something with the potential to appeal to voters. “I would hesitate to call it part of a ‘Republican agenda,’ " Loss said. “In essence, this is part of what governors do when they confront financial constraints. And it’s a politically savvy direction in which to go.”
While lawmakers have traditionally granted institutions the freedom to find new sources of revenues through tuition or elsewhere when they cuts budgets or promised to restore budgets in better times, Perry, Scott, Walker, and other Republican governors have made it clear that tuition will hold steady in their states. In 2011, Perry and Scott pushed against efforts by their states’ flagship institutions to raise tuition prices, a move that many in Texas say almost cost William Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, his job.
All three have made calls for reducing the cost of producing a degree through online courses and competency-based assessment. Walker introduced a competency-based online program earlier this year. Last year Perry created a Texas subsidiary of Western Governors University, a nonprofit competency-based online institution. This week he announced a competency-based technical training.
Scott and Walker have called for reducing faculty protections, either in the form of unions or tenure, which they say could potentially lower labor costs.
The calls for efficiency are embodied in the $10,000 degree, which sets a goal for institutions but doesn’t require lawmakers to get their hands dirty with working out the policy details. “When the person who holds political office uses his bully pulpit to call for this, it has the same effect that a market innovation would have in the free market,” Lindsay said. “Now you see all these institutions scurrying around to try to match it.”