Observing the relationship between higher education and government (both state and federal) can be as uncomfortable and confusing as the interaction between the most dysfunctional couples in history. It sometimes brings to mind the emotional wreckage of a relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (both on and off camera). Behaviors including blame play, threats of abandonment, power plays, grudges, disloyalty, win/lose arguments, and boundary violations all exist and read as one. psychology today article on how to determine if your relationship is untenable.
It is clear that higher education and government desperately need each other to create a functioning democratic society and national prosperity. So where did things go wrong? Like the tired Facebook relationship status indicator notes, it’s complicated. There is much at stake in the relative success or failure of this relationship – the stability and growth of the American economy, the potential for positive contributions around the world, and the well-being of communities, families and people.
Plus, there’s a lot of money involved (perhaps not as much as needed, but a significant sum nonetheless). Determining how much higher education receives and how it is allocated is fraught with difficulty. The stakes are high for all institutions and their employees, communities and students.
The Datalab website, created by the Office of the Chief Data Officer of the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, part of the US Department of Treasury, provides information on higher education spending. They reported, “[In 2018,] federal government investments amounted to $149 billion, or 3.6% of federal spending. This money has flowed to colleges and universities through three main vehicles: federal student aid, grants, and contracts. The site also has a search function detailing amounts spent at individual institutions.
The Urban Institute provides state and local funding data and general spending information. They reported, “In 2019, state and local governments spent $311 billion on higher education, or 9% of direct general state and local government spending. As a share of direct state and local government spending, higher education was the fourth largest expense in 2019 and roughly equal to health and hospital spending. The amounts differ from state to state.
According to advocates, lobbyists and government relations officers interviewed for this column, the profile of lawmakers makes mutual understanding difficult. The types of higher education institutions that exist today and their needs vary widely, but not the experience of policymakers with higher education.
The Congressional Research Service reported on the profile of the 116th Congress in 2020. It said 96% of Representatives and 100% of Senators had college degrees. The majority have professional backgrounds in public service, business and law. The average age is 57.6 for Congress and 62.9 for Senators. Most are Christian, white and male.
Even with the best of intentions, every legislator can imagine their experience as a student in the late 1970s and early 1980s—attending a four-year college with few obstacles and graduating with little debt—as the experience and draw inspiration from it to inform decision-making. For their children, grandchildren, and constituents, legislators may look back on the experience with nostalgia and seek to blame or impose unrealistic accountability measures on higher education when their expectations are not met in terms of admissions, of cost, student debt, degree offers and postgraduate results. . (And don’t make lawmakers start talking about dorms and all their amenities.)
The bottom line? Legislators often consider the solutions to problems in higher education to be identical. It is almost impossible to explain the diversity of institutions and their varying needs. And it is difficult for higher education institutions to come together because they are so different and the types of institutions are often pitted against each other in the battle for funding. Perhaps the only recent exception has been higher education’s consistent demand for COVID relief funds and student loan payment deferrals.
Above these perceptions are the political machinations of some legislators whose agenda is deeply rooted in anti-intellectualism, fascism and discrimination. Real threats to free inquiry and exploration, research and academic freedom have become apparent in recent state laws and efforts to limit tenure, ban books, dictate course content and reduce research funding.
Aside from fundamental misunderstandings and politics, there are additional challenges. Higher education and government operate differently in terms of timing, pace, means of influencing decision-making, and rules of engagement.
While higher education decisions follow an academic year, the timing of state legislative sessions varies widely. The pace of these sessions (some of which only last several months) can be grueling; some states introduce thousands of bills in a single session. Higher education never makes decisions so quickly. Academics aren’t used to responding succinctly and in less than 24 hours, let alone an hour, to questions from lawmakers, as government relations officers sometimes demand.
Keeping track, dissecting information, identifying unintended consequences, and seeking to change or influence the content of bills discourages higher education advocates, lobbyists, and government relations officials.
Moreover, higher education does not subscribe to modern political rules. Higher education does not have political action committees to raise funds and exercise power. There is no seat at the table for higher education and therefore little scope for political influence. At the federal level, higher education depends on organizations such as the American Council on Education and various professional and trade associations, of which there are approximately 200.
- Presidents Organizations (i.e. AAC&U),
- Organizations by institutional type (i.e. NAICU),
- Trade associations (i.e. CASE and NACUBO) and
- Student and faculty organizations (i.e. NCAA and AAUP).
These organizations work together to inform campuses, coordinate responses, communicate, and seek to achieve the many goals of higher education.
At the state level, state education departments, lobbyists, and government relations officers at individual colleges and universities seek to play a similar role. Yet the roles of lobbyists and government relations officers are often misunderstood at the campus level. Some campus voters think the positions are for “getting money” from the government, but this is more nuanced. It’s a short and long game.
Lobbyists and government relations officers
- serve as the primary explainer and trusted expert by asking questions, accurately and concisely conveying what is important and what is not (such as “what outcomes should be measured?”), providing context (such as “what human, physical, and financial resources will it take to enact the bill?”) and highlighting unintended consequences (such as “wage increases are great, but what if they’re not not funded? Do you want us to raise tuition fees?”),
- the champion campus must ensure that budget targets are met, that funds held can be used in the best interest of the campus, and that programmatic support is provided,
- review all bills to determine if they are helpful or harmful, discuss with legislators to explain positions and potential roadblocks (such as student preparation, faculty recruitment, and necessary capital expenditures), and coordinate with others lobbyists and government relations officers,
- monitor changes to ensure they are beneficial to institutions and students, and
- maintain good relationships despite political affiliations and changes in administration by building a strong base of support, meeting people where they are, and being safe from nonsensical questions and comments (like asking members faculty to punch a clock to monitor productivity).
There is no doubt that the relationship between higher education and government needs to be improved. What if the relationship was noted as the psychology today article mentioned in the outline of the introduction, how would higher education and government fare? Not dysfunctional? Sometimes dysfunctional? The relationship is in trouble? Or if we don’t start doing something differently, the relationship can completely fall apart?