Faced with increasing global competition in the marketplace in a down-spiraling economy, many governors are asking their legislatures to make a significant investment in higher education.
During his annual state-of-the-state address Feb. 5, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said he wants to pay for students to spend their final year of high school on a college campus for free. In her speech three weeks earlier, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) proposed a compact with the state's eighth-graders: Stay out of trouble and get Bs in high school, and we'll give you a college education.
Several governors also are proposing to put big money into research and development at their colleges - particularly in science, math and technology - to capitalize on the business benefits states could accrue.
While the governors addressed a wide array of other issues in their addresses - from health care to a stalled housing market to tax breaks - colleges and universities have loomed larger on their radar this year compared to past years, said Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association (NGA).
"A lot more governors now realize that their systems of higher education are really their major economic strategy for the future, … that (companies) go to where you have highly skilled workers," he said.
Additionally, Napolitano's "Innovation America" agenda that she promoted as chair of the NGA from 2006 to 2007 appears to have taken root, Scheppach said. The initiative encouraged states to better compete in a global economy by improving K-12 science, technology, engineering and math education and by investing in university research and development to produce marketable products and services.
Many of the governors' plans also focused on increasing access to college. Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) proposed sending 70 counselors to middle and high schools to help students get into college. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is calling for a tax deduction of up to $20,000 for parents saving money for their children to go to college.
Several governors proposed setting up or expanding scholarship programs. Delaware 's Ruth Ann Minner (D) said she wants to extend the state's two-year scholarship program to cover those seeking four-year degrees. Idaho 's C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) proposed in his address Jan. 7 spending $50 million for scholarships for low-income students.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) wants $3 million for grants to students so that another 2,000 "can afford the opportunity to compete in our new innovation economy." Missouri 's Matt Blunt (R) asked for $100 million for Access Missouri scholarships, a sum that would quadruple the state's investment in need-based grants.
Dan Hurley, state director of the Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), which represents more than 400 public institutions, said it is heartening that after years of states increasing merit-based scholarships - at the expense of need-based scholarships - so many are now promoting grants targeted at low-income students.
More impressive, he said, is that governors are proposing the funding increases in what promises to be a tough budget year. Usually in times of financial distress, higher education is one of the first areas to suffer spending cuts.
"It's been easy in the past to cut colleges' and universities' budgets. I think that more and more there's a greater awareness that doing so would put states at their own peril," Hurley said .
Governors in two states want to expand the number of students eligible for grants by lowering academic standards. South Dakota's Mike Rounds (R) said another 200 students could join the 3,465 who already receive the state's Opportunity Scholarships if the ACT score requirement were lowered from 24 to 23, and Tennessee's Phil Bredesen (D) suggested lowering the GPA threshold that college students must maintain to keep their Hope Scholarship from a 3.0 to 2.75.
Some of the higher education focus is a result of citizens' distress over fast-rising tuition, Scheppach said. The governors of Maryland and Michigan called for tuition freezes or limits.
The boldest proposals come from a handful of large states:
- In addition to Arizona's proposed Centennial Scholars program for eighth-graders, Napolitano pledged to double the number of bachelor's degrees awarded by her state's colleges by 2020. She also proposed a fixed-tuition plan that would freeze tuition rates for all four years of a student's college life.
- Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) also set a goal of doubling the number of college graduates. She wants to expand a pilot program that gives students an associate college degree after a five-year high school program and reward colleges that manage to graduate students, as opposed to just enrolling them.
- New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) is proposing a first-in-the-nation plan to lease the New York State Lottery to private investors as a way to fund a higher education endowment.
- Ohio 's Strickland proposed his "Seniors to Sophomores" initiative to allow 12 th -graders the choice of spending their final high school year studying at a Ohio state university campus for free, and said he wanted to make Ohio one of the 10 least-expensive states to attend college.
Among governors who proposed boosting research and development at their colleges, Granholm wants to reward schools that find ways to commercialize research. Virginia 's Tim Kaine (D) proposed a $1.6 billion bond package to develop new technologies and turn them into commercial successes. The budget of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) includes $50 million for the "Bucks for Brains" initiative to recruit faculty and build infrastructure with the goal of finding success in fields that could result in profits.
In a tough budget year, though, several governors have proposed cuts to higher education, and those who didn't might have trouble getting their agenda passed. Already Idaho 's Otter is finding his $50 million scholarship plan held up in a Senate committee because of low tax revenues, while the Arizona governor and Legislature might also clash.
"They have a significant shortfall there. And the governor's very protective of higher education, and the Legislature's not on the same page," Hurley of AASCU said.
On other issues, the economic slowdown and billion-dollar budget deficits faced by a handful of states colored many governors' state-of-the-state addresses. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) focused extensively on his state's $30 billion debt, saying in his address: "Pigs will fly over the Statehouse before there's a realistic level of new taxes or spending cuts that can fix this mess."
But go vernors continued to resist raising taxes. Corzine, for example, proposed raising tolls by 50 percent to close his state's debt. California 's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) suggested closing some state parks and releasing 22,000 inmates from prison early over the next two years.
But expanding health-care coverage also emerged as a top priority for the governors of California, Colorado , Maine , Missouri, New Mexico and Vermont. Former Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, for example, wants all state residents to have health insurance by 2010.