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Beyond Schoolhouse Rock!: Federalism in Higher Ed

Civic Engagement Policy and Advocacy Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement
August 29, 2019 Alexa Wesley NASPA

The notion of federalism is an enduring piece of our democracy’s governing framework. While federalism in the United States has evolved over time, it continues to guide the balance of power and roles between the federal government and the states. Understanding the concepts behind federalism and its applications in higher education can give us insight into the reasoning for current processes and inform discussion about proposals for reform.

Nuts and Bolts of Federalism

The United States was initially created as a union of separately established colonies, but has since transitioned into the republic of states that we know today. As an intentional departure from the British unitary system of government, the Articles of Confederation sought to preserve the independence and power of former colonies by entering a “firm league of friendship.” The restrictions placed on the central government led to economic challenges and prevented Congress from enforcing laws. The Framers eventually replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, which created a more balanced system of shared and separate, complementary powers. Wary of direct democracy leading to mob rule – the use of violence and intimidation by a group of people outside of the lawful realm to control of a political situation – the Framers designed the system to ensure that no one layer of government holds exclusive powers. This ideology helps rationalize certain political processes, such as the Electoral College and representational differences between the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

The concept of a federalist system’s balance of powers are laid out in the Constitution and in its Tenth Amendment.  

  • Enumerated powers are the powers of the U.S. Congress explicitly named in Section 8 Article I of the Constitution, such as the power to coin money and declare war.
  • Reserved powers are state powers based on language from the Tenth Amendment, which gives authority to states over anything that the Constitution does not delegate to the federal government.
  • Concurrent powers are powers that are shared by the federal and state levels of government, such as the right to levy taxes and regulate elections.
  • Implied powers are derived from the necessary and proper clause (also referred to as the elastic clause) that enables that federal government to exercise authority not listed in the Constitution but are “necessary and proper” for carrying out its enumerated powers. This ambiguous language has allowed for several shifts in the balance of federal and state powers in response to changes in national priorities and needs.

One area where we see the federal government exercise control and impact policy is through the intergovernmental grant system. The flow of federal grant-in-aid to states is typically given to broadly support services – such as public health and other social and community development services – without extensive requirements about how programs or services are structured or distributed. Here, the federal government offers flexibility in cases where state policymakers are best suited for solving the local policy challenges facing their residents. In other cases, the federal government can determine the amount of funding and eligibility for state grant participation based on a set of criteria or standards. Offering funding with strings attached serves as a tool for the federal government to use to influence state behavior, and better ensure fidelity to program implementation across states.

The U.S. federalist system is both layered and mixed, and the negotiation between federal and state authority is ongoing. Moreover, the ideals and applications of federalism can be found in virtually all areas of policy, including higher education.

Areas of Federal-State Partnership in Higher Education

Colleges and universities – within and across states – have distinct characteristics, contexts and values that they operate within. Higher education in the United States began with a handful of small, private, exclusionary colleges during a time where the former colonies were highly independent and distrustful of a central government. While higher education has significantly changed and become more balanced in its governance structures over time, its founding roots should be acknowledged for the influence that they still have on the system that we know today.

The primary responsibility of designing and managing public colleges and universities has historically fallen under state and local jurisdictions. The federal government, however, serves as an important partner to states and plays a meaningful role in the higher education system. Though both states and the federal government invest in higher education, state contributions have traditionally been a core revenue source for public institutions. Most of state funding that goes towards higher education is given directly public institutions to support general operations. According to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, states provided an average of 65 percent more in assistance to postsecondary institutions and students than the federal government from 1987 to 2012. This share of funding has since shifted following the Great Recession, as states have decreased spending in higher education and federal investments have grown. Recognizing the national benefit from increasing access to higher education for low and moderate income families, the federal government has dramatically increased its spending for Pell grants and loans to help students offset rising tuition costs.

Another overlapping aspect of higher education is its institutional accreditation process, which provides the federal government a formal lever of control over the quality of institutions receiving federal student aid dollars. College and university eligibility to participate in federal financial aid programs is determined by a process involving the interplay of accreditation agencies, states, and the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditors are independent, member-based educational associations that develop evaluation criteria and assess whether or not an institution meets agreed-upon academic quality standards. The federal government is responsible for recognizing regional accreditors and for overseeing institutional compliance to loan and grant program administrative and financial rules. In order for institutions to be authorized as degree-granting institutions, they must be recognized by state authorizing agencies who will ensure compliance with consumer protection laws. Referred to as “the triad,” these three gatekeepers of federal higher education funds each have separate but connected roles in regulating institutional quality.

With increased government spending on student aid and a national spotlight on the value of postsecondary education, a variety of proposals for reforming the division of responsibilities have been raised. Regulating a varying mix of institutions and sectors across states presents complex challenges, and policymakers will need to avoid creating overly burdensome requirements or one size fits all solutions. Some new ideas for reform focus on ways to incentivize state spending on higher education, including scaling free college programs on a national level. Others emphasize the need to improve institutional oversight through stronger state authorization standards and accountability metrics.

As the effectiveness of current lines between federal and state authority in higher education are more closely evaluated, the principles of federalism can help guide discussions about what an updated federal-state partnership might look like.