Washington Watch: Advocates in Action wrap-up

Higher education reporters from three Washington publications on a panel at Advocates in Action. (Photo: David Baime)

For the last few years, AACC has sponsored Advocates in Action, a two-day affair in Washington when the association convenes its Advocacy Advisory Group and other interested parties to lobby Capitol Hill. This year, the timing was thoroughly opportune, given the current work on the HEA reauthorization, Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 funding, and action on the DREAM Act. Before attendees hit Capitol Hill, however, they received a variety of briefings. For those of you who weren’t at the meeting, here is an overview of those briefings:

Robert Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, author of The End of White Christian America, talked about the ongoing changes in America’s demographics and their political and cultural implications. For example, between 2004 and 2018, white Christians declined from 59 percent of the population, to 41 percent, with a strong age differential: only 23 percent of those ages 18 to 29 are white Christians, compared to 63 percent of those 65 and older. America is changing fast. But white Evangelicals continue to show up to vote: they represented 26 percent of all voters in each national election between 2008 and 2018, while simultaneously declining from 21 percent to 15 percent of the electorate. Quite a few Americans are truly, deeply unhappy about the other party: 54 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans said that the other party was “so misguided they pose serious threat to the country.” When posed with the question, “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse,” 66 percent of Democrats said it has mostly changed for the better, compared to 31 percent of Republicans. All of these trends are the stuff of political strategists, and Jones offered no prescriptions for breaching some of the divides he chronicled. But he did provide insight into the nature of the task.

Jones was followed by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, author of the Dream Hoarders, or “How the Upper American Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust. Reeves demonstrated that community colleges are modal destiny institutions for the middle class (middle three income quintiles) and have served in that capacity for decades. Even as under-funded and under-resourced they are, Reeves concluded that “community colleges are vital for upward mobility to the middle class.”

Reeve’s policy recommendations including make enrolling in and navigating college much easier by: (1) simplifying the application and financial aid processes and (2) transferring from a two- to a four-year institution. Reeves emphasized that meritocracy, which is heavily reliant on test results and other measures of college readiness and likelihood of success, calcifies who goes to and who succeeds in higher education. As such, the students who benefit most from higher education, the currently underserved, are the ones denied a level playing field.

AiA attendees next heard from a media panel consisting of Michael Stratford of Politico Pro, Ashley Smith of Inside Higher Ed and Sarah Brown from The Chronicle of Higher Education. The trio offered a variety of perspectives on issues confronting community colleges and higher education. Stratford was bearish on the potential for HEA reauthorization to be completed this year, citing several policy and political obstacles in its path. Brown noted that policymakers generally approached Title IX policy issues with four-year residential institutions, but that she and others recognized that community colleges are different. Smith and Brown both urged community college leaders to visit their offices and editorial boards more often when in Washington. Panelists also stated that, when trying to interest the media in a story from their college, they should try to tie it to a larger trend or issue.

Diane Auer Jones, who serves as both ED’s principal deputy education undersecretary and assistant secretary for postsecondary education, outlined ED’s “Experimental Site” involving the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program. The experiment makes FWS more flexible by primarily encouraging greater use of employment by private sector employees, and extending the number of work hours. The intent of the experiment is to determine the impact of off-campus private sector employment on student completion rates and time to completion, borrowing, and employment outcomes. As reported in Community College Daily, ED is also extending the three-year Second Chance Pell initiative, which waives the ban against Pell eligibility for incarcerated federal and state prisoners. Community colleges are encouraged to pursue both these opportunities – please contact the government relations staff if you have any questions about these opportunities.

Two days before ED published its proposed rulemaking concerning accreditation, state authorization, and distance learning, Jones’ referred to the negotiated rulemaking process on which those regulations are based. She noted that, despite the many doubters, she had fully expected the rulemaking negotiators to reach consensus, as they did. Jones also informed the group of the changes to the College Scorecard, which up to now has only institutional level information, but now is providing preliminary program-level debt information. ED is also prepared to release some time in the future earnings information at the program level. Jones’ added that the department is holding discussions with Google, among others, about using Scorecard information on their platforms for a more expansive reach.

AACC’s board of directors’ chair-elect, Alex Johnson, president, and Claire Rosacco, vice president for government relations and outreach, of Cuyahoga Community College, walked attendees through the resources provided by the AACC’s advocacy toolkit, released in 2018 after consideration by the board’s Committee on Government Relations and Public Policy. The toolkit is an A-B-C of how CEOs and other campus officials can advocate for students, colleges, and their communities. The presentation focused on the sustained work that the college has undertaken in building its advocacy program.

The day concluded with Sarah Abernathy, deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding (CEF). CEF is a coalition of 110 organizations, including AACC, which advocates jointly for increased federal education funding. Abernathy noted that less than 2 percent of the federal budget goes to education, and that CEF’s long term goal is to increase that to 5 percent. Abernathy sketched the broad federal budget and appropriations landscape, emphasizing that Congress must strike a deal to raise the FY 2020 budget caps if it wants to avoid deep cuts to both defense and non-defense spending, a result that almost nobody wants. She explained that the House of Representatives had already “deemed” (a procedural move) new, increased budget caps, making House funding bills likely the high water mark for FY 2020. Final funding legislation will probably be somewhat lower spending once a compromise budget agreement has been reached.

All this and briefings on Capitol Hill that features three members of Congress, occurred before the real purpose of the meeting – advancing AACC’s federal legislative agenda – got underway. It was a busy two days for participants!