How One University President Is Trying to Save Public Higher Ed

On the morning of June 3, Senator Lamar Alexander walks into an ornate meeting room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and gavels open a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to a standing-room-only crowd. At seventy-five, the gray-haired Tennessee Republican has started to hunch over and shuffle as he walks. But he retains the man-in-charge air of a twelve-year Senate veteran and a former two-term governor, president of his state’s flagship university, U.S. secretary of education, and, briefly, presidential candidate. Alexander only recently won control of this powerful committee, once headed by Ted Kennedy. He has made no secret of his desire to use the perch to put his mark on history as a capstone to his long career—by, among other things, rewriting the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal statute that controls everything from student loans to support for minority-serving institutions.

Alexander hopes to make HEA reauthorization in part a vehicle to deregulate higher education; he believes that there is a significant amount of costly and burdensome federal red tape imposed on states and colleges and that they should have more flexibility. But as today’s hearing on college affordability proceeds, it becomes clear that things aren’t going as he might have liked. The problem is that the Democrats’ star witness, the Louisiana State University president F. King Alexander, is stealing the show. Dressed in a suit with an LSU pin and a tie of LSU purple, King Alexander not only shares a last name with the senator (though they are not related), he’s also a southerner from the Tennessee Valley who has thought deeply about the effects of federal policy on higher education. Yet King’s ideas for ensuring college affordability are the polar opposite of Lamar’s: the LSU president wants more federal regulation—including on his own state and university.

The “greatest challenge facing public universities,” King Alexander explains, is that states today spend about half as much on higher education on a per capita income basis as they did in 1981. This is a direct result, he says, of a regulatory failure built into federal law. In other areas of federal policy, such as transportation and health care, federal dollars come with strings attached—states have to pitch in a set amount of money too. That’s not the case for higher education, where money follows the student to private and public colleges alike, and states have no requirements to fund public universities at a certain (or indeed any) level. The result is that when states are under budget pressure, as they have been in the years since the financial crisis, they slash spending on higher ed. The burden of those cuts then gets shifted to students, in the form of higher tuition, and to the federal government, in greater spending on grants, tax credits, and subsidized student loans.

F. King Alexander (Jim Zietz / LSU)

On the current course, King continues, within twenty years at least eight states—including Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and South Carolina—will spend no public money on their state universities, and in the rest of the country public higher education will be a shell of its former self. Lamar listens, rocking back and forth in his chair.

When it comes time for questions, the Republicans mostly ignore King, focusing on the other witnesses, but nearly every Democrat calls on him. Patty Murray and Al Franken ask King about specific ways the federal government can use regulations—they prefer the term “leverage”—to encourage states to fund public higher education. Sheldon Whitehouse argues that there’s no reason to “flood” the higher education system with federal dollars if the government doesn’t stop states from disinvesting in public higher education—a surprising statement considering that another Democratic senator from his state of Rhode Island created the modern aid system and the party has historically favored flooding it.

One committee Republican, however, does engage with King. Bill Cassidy, a freshman senator from Louisiana who was sworn in just seven months ago and obtained both his undergraduate and medical degrees from LSU, confesses to a conflicted view about King’s argument. “I’m against states being mandated to do something, but it appears unless states are mandated to do something they’re not going to do so.” King replies that if the federal government doesn’t force states to do something, then the costs will shift onto the federal government and the individual students. Lamar, appearing to grow more upset with the turn the hearing is taking, walks over as Cassidy gets up to leave the hearing room and whispers into his ear for more than a minute.

After all the senators have had their chance to ask questions, Lamar delays the conclusion of the hearing to spar specifically with King. How could he want more federal mandates when it’s federal mandates in other policy areas, like Medicaid, that force states to divert funding from higher education? King perches forward in his chair as Lamar speaks, ready to counter. Yes, it’s true, King replies, that governors very much oppose federal mandates, but they certainly respond to the incentives they create. During the recession, a federal mandate within stimulus funding prevented states from cutting higher education; only when the stimulus money ran out did states slash those budgets. That, says King, is proof that federal mandates work, whether governors like it or not. Lamar shoots back that he is completely opposed to federal mandates. “I think that if you have that you might as well just have the federal government take over all the states. Wouldn’t be anything left for governors or legislators to decide, and so I would respectfully disagree.” With that, Lamar ends the hearing.

The plate tectonics of higher education are rumbling. Fiscal and ideological pressures are pushing toward a clash over the role of the federal government in higher education. For many years, the Democrats were primarily focused on making the existing student aid program more generous. But with $1.2 trillion in outstanding federal student loan debt and continued state disinvestment in public higher education, Democrats are quickly coming around, as the hearing suggests, to King’s view that pumping ever-more resources into federal student aid is a mug’s game. The basic rules need to change. HEA reauthorization is one vehicle for that change, but given GOP resistance and the general gridlock in Congress, it’s probably not the most promising one. Instead, this is an issue that’s likely to play out in the presidential race. Democratic presidential candidates have already started to appeal to their progressive base by talking about “debt-free college,” and the emerging details of these plans all revolve around the federal government forcing states to fund public higher education. To make their case, the candidates need allies knowledgeable enough about the complicated policy architecture of federal-state higher education funding to advise them, and credible enough to be spokespeople for the needed changes. More than anyone else, that person is F. King Alexander.

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The Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College is the flagship campus of the LSU system and is located in Baton Rouge, an hour’s drive north of New Orleans. The campus, which has multiple exits off of the I-10 freeway, is a large presence in the city, both in terms of land and the number of people it employs.

Jim Zietz / LSU

Baton Rouge in early June is similar to Washington, D.C., in August—after about thirty minutes outside you resent that society requires you to wear clothes, now that they are drenched with sweat and stuck to your skin. LSU battles the heat with giant southern live oak trees (Quercus virginiana), which seem to cool the entire campus and offer a much-needed refuge from the sun. The oaks are sacred—people who park their cars near the exposed roots are heavily fined. Strolling through the quad, you encounter one of the limbs of a giant tree growing downward, sprawled on the ground like a student lying out in the sun. You might recognize LSU’s trees, grass, and understated buildings from the Pitch Perfect movies, in which LSU stars as Barden University.

Bobby Jindal, Budget Cuts, and the Uncertain Fate of Louisiana’s Universities

But better information is just the first step in his crusade to save the publics and force a reckoning on the privates. The second step, as he revealed at the hearing on Capitol Hill, is for Washington to get states to stop cutting their higher education budgets as a condition for receiving federal student aid. The third step is to starve the privates. In King’s mind, privates have no right to federal dollars, and the history of their actions suggests that they do not have their students’ best interests at heart.

King finally comes up for air to tell his staff, who surround us at the table, about his day. He just showed off LSU’s brand-new NCAA Golf Championship trophy to some politicians, who wanted photographs with the players. King was doing some last-minute schmoozing with his most important funders: the Louisiana state legislature.

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