Higher Ed’s Relationship With the Government: It’s Complicated


Observing the relationship between higher education and government (both state and federal) can be as uncomfortable and perplexing as interaction between the most dysfunctional couples in history. It’s sometimes reminiscent of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s emotional train wreck of a relationship (both on and off camera). Behaviors including the blame game, threats of abandonment, power plays, grudges, disloyalty, winner/loser arguments and boundary violations all exist and read like a Psychology Today article on how to determine if your relationship is untenable.

It’s clear that higher education and government desperately need each other to create a high-functioning democratic society and national prosperity. So, where did things go wrong? Like the tired Facebook relationship status indicator notes, it’s complicated. There’s a lot at stake in the relative success or failure of this relationship—the stability and growth of the U.S. economy, potential of positive contributions worldwide, and the well-being of communities, families and individuals.

Also, there’s a great deal of money involved (maybe not as much as is needed, but a significant amount nevertheless). Determining how much higher education receives and how it’s allocated is fraught with challenges. The stakes are high for all institutions and their employees, communities and students.

The website Datalab, created by the Office of the Chief Data Officer at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, provides information on higher education spending. They reported, “[In 2018,] investments from the federal government were $149 billion, representing 3.6% of federal spending. This money flowed into 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 background information about spending. They reported, “In 2019, state and local governments spent $311 billion on higher education, or 9 percent of state and local direct general spending. As a share of state and local direct spending, higher education was the fourth-largest expenditure in 2019 and roughly equal to spending on health and hospitals.” 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 challenging. The types of higher education institutions that exist today and their needs vary greatly, but the lawmakers’ experience in higher education does not.

The Congressional Research Service reported on 116th Congress’s profile in 2020. It stated that 96 percent of representatives and 100 percent of senators have 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 intention, each lawmaker may be imagining their late-1970s and early-1980s student experience—attending a four-year college facing few obstacles and graduating with little debt—as the experience and drawing upon it to inform decision making. For their children, grandchildren and constituents, lawmakers may think of the experience with nostalgia and seek to blame or impose unrealistic accountability measures on higher education when their expectations aren’t met in terms of admissions, cost, student debt, degree offerings and postgraduate outcomes. (And don’t get lawmakers started on talking about dormitories and all their amenities.)

The bottom line? Lawmakers often see solutions to problems in higher education as one-size-fits-all. It’s nearly impossible to explain the diversity of institutions and their various needs. And it’s challenging for higher education institutions to rally together because they are so different, and institutional types are often pitted against each other in the battle for funding. Perhaps the one recent exception was higher education’s coherent request for COVID relief funds and student loan payment deferrals.

Layered on top of those perceptions are the political machinations of certain lawmakers whose agenda is deeply seated 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 curtail funding for research.

Fundamental misunderstandings and politics aside, there are additional challenges. Higher education and government operate differently in terms of schedule, pace, means of influencing decision making and the 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 just several months long) can be grueling; some states introduce thousands of bills in a single session. Higher education never makes decisions this quickly. Those in the academy aren’t accustomed to answering lawmakers’ questions succinctly and in less than 24 hours, much less an hour, as government relations officers sometimes require.

Keeping track, dissecting information, identifying unintentional consequences and seeking to change or influence the content present in bills daunts higher education advocates, lobbyists and governmental relations officers alike.

Also, higher education doesn’t subscribe to modern political rules. Higher education has no political action committees to raise funds and wield power. There is no seat at the table for higher education and, therefore few avenues of political influence. At the federal level, higher education depends upon organizations like the American Council on Education and a variety of professional and trade associations, numbering an estimated 200.

Examples include:

  • 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 accomplish higher education’s many goals.

At the state level, state education departments, lobbyists and government relations officers from individual colleges and universities seek to play a similar role. Yet the roles of lobbyists and government relations officers are often unappreciated at the campus level. Some campus constituents believe the positions function to “get the money” from the government, but it’s more nuanced. It’s a short and long game.

Lobbyists and government relations officers

  • serve as chief explainer and trusted expert by asking questions, accurately and concisely conveying what is important and what’s not (such as “what outcomes should be measured?”), providing context (such as “what human, physical, and financial resources will take to enact the bill?”), and illuminating unintended consequences (such as “salary increases are great but what happens if they aren’t funded? Do you want us to raise tuition?”),
  • champion campus needs to ensure budget objectives are met, monies held can be used in the campus’s best interests and programmatic support is provided,
  • review all bills to determine if they are helpful or harmful, talk with lawmakers to explain positions and potential roadblocks (such as student readiness, faculty recruitment and necessary related capital expenses), and coordinate with other lobbyists and government relations officers,
  • monitor amendments to make sure they are beneficial for institutions and students, and
  • maintain good relationships despite political affiliations and shifts in administration by building a solid base of support, meeting people where they are and being immune to absurd questions and comments (like demanding faculty members punch a time clock to monitor productivity).

No doubt the relationship between higher education and government needs improvement. And if the relationship was scored as the Psychology Today article mentioned in the introduction outlines, how would higher education and government fare? Not dysfunctional? Dysfunctional at times? The relationship is in trouble? Or if we don’t begin to do something differently, the relationship may completely fall apart?


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