Politics and Policy Making in the Postsecondary Sector
Last week, I wrote about the 2022 year-end omnibus bill and connected with Rebecca Natow on Twitter. Rebecca is assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University. She is author of the books Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education: Politics and Policymaking in the Postsecondary Sector (Teachers College Press) and Higher Education Rulemaking: The Politics of Creating Regulatory Policy (Johns Hopkins University Press). I asked Rebecca to join me in conversation so we could hear more from her about her work in the area of higher ed policy.
Q: Rebecca, thanks so much for joining me at the “Higher Ed Policy” blog at Inside Higher Ed. As you know, most of our readers work at colleges and universities, and many are in senior leadership positions at our institutions. That said, what do you want our presidents and chancellors to be thinking about as we launch into 2023?
A: I think it’s important for senior leaders in higher education institutions to be aware of the public policy context and how it influences higher education and the resources available to institutions and students. There are a lot of interesting policy contexts as we head further into 2023. One important policy consideration is how divided government at the federal level will affect higher education. The 117th Congress was able to pass the American Rescue Plan, which provided $40 billion for higher education as part of pandemic relief funding. Also, the 2022 year-end omnibus spending bill contained an increase in the Pell Grant award as well as funding for historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and federal programs designed to promote student success, such as TRIO programs.
Now, in 2023, the 118th Congress is under divided party control, as Democrats still control the Senate but Republicans now control the House. So as much as it seemed like the 117th Congress was gridlocked, the next two years are likely to experience a lot more gridlock in getting significant policies passed.
In the executive branch, the Department of Education will begin the process to develop a number of regulatory reforms, including regulations on distance education, student loan servicing, accreditation and other matters affecting higher education institutions. This will trigger the negotiated rule-making process, which involves the Department of Education meeting with stakeholders to negotiate the content of proposed regulations. College presidents and other high-level administrators have been active in negotiated rule making in the past, so this is a matter higher education leaders should particularly watch in 2023.
We also expect new Title IX regulations to be issued this year, which is another policy change of which college leaders should be mindful, because it may require changes in campus-level policies around Title IX enforcement and implementation. In the judicial branch, we are waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of race-conscious college admission policies, which is expected later this year. The Supreme Court will also hear arguments about the legal validity of President Biden’s student loan forgiveness policy.
Higher education leaders must also be aware of the policy context in their state. Unlike the federal government, which must often use its spending power to influence education policy due to its historically limited authority over education, state governments have more direct control over substantive education policy. This means that college leaders should pay close attention to the policy issues that matter most to their state-level public officials. In 2023, I expect Republican-led states to continue to scrutinize programs and curricula focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, as Governor Ron DeSantis has done in his state of Florida.
Q: Last year, your book Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education: Politics and Policymaking in the Postsecondary Sector was published by Teachers College Press. What are some of the key takeaways for leaders in higher ed?
A: My book is based on research I’ve conducted into the federal government’s role in higher education throughout history and today. Among other things, my research found that the federal government has provided substantial resources to higher education, particularly when higher education can help accomplish federal priorities. Higher education has become increasingly politicized in recent years, and the focus on accountability and scrutinizing student outcomes has led colleges and universities to become vulnerable to government disinvestment. It is therefore important for higher education leaders to recognize this and to advocate for greater investment in higher education.
If leaders can demonstrate how higher education can help to achieve government priorities—for example, by promoting social mobility for students, generating economic growth in their regions or providing education to promote critical thinking and democratic participation—then leaders will have a greater likelihood of receiving policy makers’ support.
Another key takeaway of my book is that, even though “education” is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government in fact plays a substantial role in higher education. From the enormous federal student financial aid programs to enforcing civil rights, federal policy is prevalent in numerous aspects of college and university operations. Therefore, even though state governments have more direct control over higher education in their states, college and university leaders should cultivate relationships in the federal policy community as well.
Q: How can faculty better inform and influence federal decision-making?
A: I am a big proponent of higher education faculty and staff getting involved in policy advocacy. There are a number of ways faculty can inform and influence policy at the federal level. First, stay informed about important policy issues affecting higher education today. Specialized periodicals focusing on the sector (such as Inside Higher Ed) do a great job of reporting on policies and policy debates at all levels of government. Becoming more involved with politically aware professional associations, such as the American Association of University Professors, can also keep faculty informed about important policy issues. Involvement with such organizations can help professors become more active in the policy world by building their network with people in the policy community and making use of the information and advocacy resources provided by many professional associations.
Faculty should also get to know their federal, state and local government representatives and to reach out to them about important policy matters. An important finding from my research is that the staff who work for policy makers are definitely interested in hearing from people who work on college campuses to understand how policy affects the everyday lives of students, faculty and staff. College faculty should not hesitate to reach out to their representatives in government and share information and perspectives that would be useful to policy makers.
Mary Churchill is professor of the practice and director of the higher education administration program at Boston University, where she also serves as associate dean. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis.