Dominique Baker is an Assistant Professor of Education Policy and an Associate at the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Baker is an expert in financial aid policies and student debt, and examines the equity implications of higher education policies. Ithaka S+R graciously thanks Dr. Baker for sharing her thoughts on the strategic alignment of state higher education finance policies.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

With limited funding, where do you think states should prioritize their higher education investments?

It is critical that states prioritize ways to increase the affordability of college while also ensuring that public institutions have the capacity to provide a quality education. I think with limited funding states should prioritize investments in increasing the affordability of higher education while also increasing the amount of funding for institutions to spend specifically on academic endeavors. For affordability, this could mean reducing the cost of attendance (tuition and fees, housing, food, books, and more) through either additional student financial aid or by actually lowering the price colleges charge. For the academic focus, research has shown that increasing colleges’ financial resources targeted at academics and learning has a significant effect on students’ graduation rates (which could be done through appropriations).

How should the research community convey the importance of increased and targeted higher education investments?

One way to do this is through research that focuses on where states can get “the most bang for their buck.” Sometimes, scholars will focus on solely investigating the effect of policy changes on outcomes. This is important work. However, if possible, it is just as critical to posit the tradeoffs between different types of policies, based on what we know from research. These types of additional analysis can be included in journal articles as the main analysis or in the discussion, but they can also be included in policy briefs or reports for policy stakeholders (such as policymakers or policy intermediary organizations). It is important to keep in mind that policy stakeholders often do not have access to peer-reviewed journal outlets. Therefore, finding public ways to articulate what research recommends is essential when attempting to convey the importance of increased and targeted higher education investments.

How important is funding stability for public colleges? And what steps can campus leaders take to buffer themselves from shocks and preserve their ability to pursue their mission?

Funding stability, particularly with appropriations, is critical and something that public colleges have not always been able to rely upon in the past decade, although there have been consistent increases in state per student funding in recent years.  If I remember correctly, in general, it appears that increases in state support for public colleges are more reliable, though the amount of funding is still below pre-Recession numbers. Some campus leaders have chosen to reduce the amount of funding they receive from the state in order to buffer themselves from changes in funding levels. However, only certain types of public colleges, normally the already well-resourced ones, can do something like this. I think, unfortunately, one of the biggest ways that some campus leaders have taken to buffer themselves is to raise the total cost of attendance and rely more on adjunct or contingent faculty, who institutions can pay less for since the colleges generally do not cover their health care or retirement costs. Which all contradicts the mission of public institutions.

Also, I will not go into detail on this, but stability and reliability for state student financial aid is difficult to navigate as well. For example, there are several states that award student financial aid on a first come, first serve basis. That means that there can be large shares of students that we know should be receiving additional state aid who are not able to receive the funds. And, the students more likely to apply later are also the ones more likely to be from historically marginalized student populations.

While context is important, which states would you point to as exemplars of a comprehensive approach to financing higher education?

That is a tough question. I think that there are several states that are trying to find interesting and novel ways of funding higher education. I do not know if I have exemplars but I will attempt to sketch out my thinking. The latest State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) report, shows that only a small number of states have recovered total revenues from education after the Great Recession and one of them I believe is Alaska where the governor recently proposed severe cuts to higher education. So, basically, I struggle to think about what an exemplar for a comprehensive approach looks like when there are these types of nuances. I can say that there are states doing innovative things in certain areas of financing. For example, Tennessee leading the charge with tuition-free community college, or Texas creating a statewide strategic goal for the ratio of undergraduate debt to first-year income, or states with premiums or bonuses in performance-based funding for key demographic groups (such as low-income students, students of color). These are innovative ways for states to focus on financing higher education though I am always interested in better understanding how these moves have intended and unintended consequences on equity.

Who should be involved in goal setting to ensure financing inefficiencies are avoided and financing policies match broader social goals?

Beyond policymakers, it would be useful to include institutional stakeholders (such as presidents and students), researchers, and policy intermediary organizations who work as conduits between research and the policy process. When I mention policy intermediary organizations I’m thinking in particular of some individuals the public may not automatically think about, but who are instrumental to state higher education funding decisions, like the state higher education executive officers or SHEEOS.

Though, this will not be a silver bullet. For example, recent research shows that low-resource institutions can be harmed by performance funding policies (while high-resource institutions benefit). Having stakeholders from these institutions involved in goal setting could help policymakers think through the ways to appropriately fund higher education without harming the institutions that are more likely to serve students who have been historically marginalized. Though, it is important to note, that if the political will to focus on broader social goals is not there, regardless of who else is involved in goal setting, policies will be unlikely to actually focus on the broader social good.

What safeguards would you recommend to ensure the pursuit of cost efficiency doesn’t undermine equity in higher education?

Projections that focus on the cost-benefit analysis or cost efficiency need to always include discussion of who benefits and who is harmed among key demographic lines( such as income [or preferably, wealth], race/ethnicity, gender, generational college going status, or disability), and institutional differences (such as regional public institutions versus flagship public institutions). One way to do this is to ensure that researchers and policy intermediary organizations who focus on equity are part of the conversations when policies are developed or revised. Though, as I mentioned in my prior answer, if the primary political goal is cost efficiency at the expense of everything else, regardless of the safeguards equity is unlikely to be achieved.