Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Higher Education Lobby

Ben Adler, writing in the Washington Monthly lets readers in on the supposed "bad practices" of the higher education lobby. Ensconsed in a vey nice builiding in One Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, most of the prominent higher education associations benefit from the close quarters to become a large voice in the political process.

Adler describes this as if it were a bad thing for students and their parents.
That’s not to say that higher ed doesn’t champion righteous causes. In the 1990s, they stood up to attempts by the Republican Congress to cut student aid, and went on to team with the Clinton administration to expand the Pell Grant program. And when, after 9/11, the Bush administration, in its zeal to keep out terrorists, imposed overly harsh visa requirements that ended up keeping out large numbers of foreign professors and grad students—exactly the kind of people who keep our universities humming with fresh ideas—higher ed led the successful effort to pressure the government to adopt a more sensible policy.

But the same lobbying muscle they’ve often put in the service of worthy causes they’ve also used to thwart promising reforms. On a range of issues, higher ed has stood up for its own narrow strategic or pecuniary concerns, rather than the broader interests of students or the country at large. In short, though it represents institutions that loudly proclaim a mission of public service, the higher education lobby more often acts like any other Washington trade group. Today, one of the most significant roadblocks to fixing many of the pressing problems of our troubled system of higher education is the higher education lobby itself.
To a certain extent, it is a bad thing. But here is something to remember, the higher education lobby groups do not represent students, they represent colleges and universities and the various official groups like University Attorneys or University Presidents. These groups have members and interests that sometimes coincides with student intersts and sometimes don't.

In the modern age of lobbying coaltions are the norm if a groups wants to get anything done. Even mega groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce routine partner with smaller, even largely unknown, lobbying groups. Often, these large and small lobbying groups will be part of dozens of coalitions on a variety of issues. Given that higher education groups would often align on a whole series of issues, the close working relationship no doubt leads to a monolithic appearance--when they are on the opposite side of the table.

That these groups look out for the parochial interests of colleges and universities is not only to be expected--it is their entire reason for existence. But higher ed lobbies are a bit different that big coprorate trade associations and labor unions--they can't spend the money those groups can because of their legal status (one of the most important protections for colleges and universities is the 501(c)(3) status allowing for tax deductible contributions).
The higher ed lobby is plenty aggressive, but in an understated way—money is not its main lever of power. In 2005, the last years for which figures are available, higher education associations officially spent just $6.2 million on lobbying, according to figures from Inside Higher Ed. (By contrast, General Electric alone spent $24.2 million, much of which went to the kind of high-priced outside law and PR firms that higher ed almost never employs.) Nor does it rely on mass grassroots campaigns to make its voice heard. Since most of the associations are organized under the tax code as 501(c)(3) organizations, they’re legally allowed to spend only a limited amount of money on the kind of conventional mass political tactics—holding rallies and organizing letter- and e-mail-writing campaigns in order to affect legislation—that the teachers unions or environmental groups routinely use.

Instead, higher ed wields power in two effective if subtle ways. First, it plays an inside game, conducting quiet, sit-down meetings with policy makers in which it trades on its expertise on the often technical questions of education policy. Hill staffers looking to make sense of complicated legislative proposals, and to understand the impact on those most directly affected, have little alternative but to turn to higher ed lobbyists.

Second, higher ed makes skillful use of its hometown ties. Colleges typically occupy prominent positions in the economic, cultural, and civic life of their communities, and they’re adept at using those positions to win influence. They can curry favor with legislators by conferring honorary degrees or inviting them to give commencement addresses, usually generating a round of positive PR back home. In some communities, college presidents are high-profile public figures, with ready access to the media and the power to help shape local opinion. Like large corporations, universities are often major employers in their districts, and their financial fortunes have a spillover effect on the local economy. More personal ties can also weigh heavily: according to some Hill staffers, legislators often have a soft spot for their alma mater, or for the state university whose football team they grew up rooting for.
This is smart politics and very effective. But really, no different than any other group that seeks to influence policy.

The fact of the matter is, that in the world of interest group politics, most people don't care about these issues. Adler speaks of legacy enrollment and early admission processes. For most Americans, this does not affect their lives directly and thus they don't care. When only one side has the microphone because the other side doesn't exist or show up, only one side gets heard.

Adler's article, while containing some interesting back room politicking a given issues, shows us nothing new or unexpected in the world of lobbying.

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