Washington Watch: A recap of Advocates in Action

Panel on higher education politics and policy with lobbyists (from left) Lee Foley, Vince Sampson, Alex Nock and moderator David Baime. (All photos by Kathryn Gimborys/AACC)

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) hosted its Advocates in Action meeting last Thursday and Friday, an event that hasn’t been held since 2019 due to the Covid pandemic. More than 70 community college presidents, government relations directors and other campus administrators convened in Washington, D.C., to hear from a variety of policymakers and policy experts.

The goal for Thursday morning’s session was to provide attendees with perspectives from speakers that would prepare them to visit their representatives on Capitol Hill that afternoon to advocate for community college legislative priorities.

Attendees reconvened Friday to hear from additional speakers, including higher education journalists, researchers, advocates and officials, and engage in candid conversations about challenges faced by the community college sector and opportunities for the future.

Thursday’s session

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at AACC, set the stage for the two-day seminar by briefly describing the current political landscape in which advocates are working. The first panel expanded on Baime’s remarks through a discussion with Lee Foley from Capitol Hill Partners, Alex Nock from Penn Hill Group and Vince Sampson on Higher Education Politics and Policy — 2022-23.

Nock said that “it seems next to impossible that Congress will authorize the Higher Education Act any time soon.” But there are still other avenues to impact higher education policy, he said, including through reconciliation bills and annual appropriations bills.

Higher education policy has become more partisan, said Sampson, a new reality that he described as “unfortunate.” Republicans are hoping to pick up six seats in the House of Representatives and gain the majority during this November’s midterm elections, which would shift the party’s focus from opposing Democrats’ policy to setting their own policy priorities. Many of those conversations have been and will continue to be centered around workforce development, as lawmakers, parents and students explore the value proposition of higher education.

Despite the partisanship of higher education policy, there are still areas of agreement among Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate. All believe that there should be changes to Title IV of the Higher Education Act and that Pell Grants should be available for workforce programs, said Foley. But the devil is in the details, and that’s where the agreement diverges, he said.

Following the panel discussion, Elaine Kamarck, a director of the Center for Effective Public Management and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, dove deeper into the dynamics surrounding the November election.

“Nothing seems to be going the way we thought it would go,” Kamarck said.

The political party affiliated with the president generally loses seats during the midterm elections, but Democrats may not lose as much control of Congress as previously believed, said Kamarck (In May, some experts were predicting that Democrats could lose as many as 60 seats).

She described three factors that have changed experts’ minds: first, that in the four special elections held in 2022, every Democratic candidate outperformed Biden’s 2020 numbers and every Republican candidate underperformed Trump’s 2020 numbers; second, that voter registration surged throughout the summer, particularly among women, which could be an indication of mobilization following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade; and third, Republican candidates have softened their rhetoric on abortion rights, which indicates a change in their approaches to campaigning.

The second speaker was David Winston, a Republican strategist and pollster, who expanded on the idea of higher education’s value proposition. Winston shared polling conducted by The Winston Group demonstrating respondents’ views on the subject: 51% said they think higher education is heading in the wrong direction, but the favorability of community colleges is consistently high (71% as of September 2022).

Winston highlighted the importance of advocates relaying the contributions of community colleges to elected officials, citing how the institutions provide career and technical education and skill development; help students overcome learning loss from K-12 education; and providing opportunities for students from all backgrounds to succeed.

“If you sit down with any state legislator or member of Congress and express that, you’re going to get a positive response,” Winston said.

(From left) Capitol Hill staffers Reid Willis (Office of Sen. Chuck Grassley), Mary Christina Riley (House Education and Labor minority staff), Amaris Benavidez (House Education and Labor majority staff) and Katie Berger (Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions majority staff).

The second panel of the morning included four Capitol Hill staffers — Katie Berger from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Mary Christina Riley from the minority staff of the House Education and Labor Committee; Amaris Benavidez from the majority staff of the House Education and Labor Committee; and Reid Willis from the office of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — who shared what members of Congress are currently focused on and what their priorities will be for the year ahead.

The morning concluded with a briefing by AACC’s Office of Government Relations staff describing the association’s current advocacy priorities for community colleges. These priorities were outlined in a set of issue papers distributed to AiA attendees, which are available on the Advocacy page of AACC’s website.

Friday’s session

The seminar continued Friday morning with a panel of veteran higher education journalists: Sarah Brown, news editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Sara Weissman, reporter at Inside Higher Ed. Both journalists gave an overview of the pitches that pique their interests, the perspectives that help ground their coverage, and a recognition of the importance of covering the community college sector to tell the larger story of what’s happening in higher education.

Brown highlighted that the Chronicle has prioritized putting a spotlight on community colleges, particularly their important role in re-engaging students with some college, no degree. Looking forward, she is interested in how colleges are preparing to implement new Title IX regulations, how colleges are addressing students’ basic needs, and how colleges are preparing to continue programs and services post-HEERF funding.

Weissman specifically covers nontraditional students for Inside Higher Ed and is interested in community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and institutions advancing social mobility. In the coming year, she is interested to hear how colleges are working to regain enrollment, particularly of men of color, and from colleges developing prison education programs.

Both journalists highlighted the importance of stories – from institutional leaders, faculty, and especially students. These perspectives make for better, more nuanced articles about what is working for our students and colleges and where challenges remain. 

CJ Powell (standing), chief of staff at the U.S. Education Department’s postsecondary education office, and Frank Woodbeck, executive director of grants and special projects at College of Southern Nevada.

Following the panel discussion, CJ Powell, chief of staff for the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, gave a brief overview of the Biden-Harris administration’s support for community colleges and many of the president’s higher education priorities. 

“Community colleges are the backbone of our country,” Powell said at the beginning of his remarks.

He continued by noting that community colleges and our students were hit incredibly hard by the Covid pandemic; the crisis brought to light the myriad of challenges our students face on the path to a credential. However, he noted, community colleges have also been incredibly flexible, creative, and thoughtful in their use of HEERF funding to support students and create cultures of care. As our country continues to emerge from the pandemic, the administration is eager to build on the lessons learned – the resources students need, the innovative ways colleges foster student success, and the importance of federal investments to support those efforts. He noted the importance of the HEERF reporting forms as critical tools to highlight the need for permanent funding and to inform the president’s next budget request.

Powell also underscored the president’s support for doubling the federal Pell Grant, delivering student debt relief for borrowers, and investing in student success, including through the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) and Postsecondary Student Success Grant (PSSG) programs.

The next speaker was higher education finance expert, Sandy Baum, who serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Baum shared some of her research on rising rates of income inequality in the United States and how this trend intensifies many of the challenges that community colleges face as open-access institutions and as engines of economic mobility. She then led attendees through a deep dive of President Biden’s recently announced student debt relief plan. 

Baum highlighted additional policy changes to improve higher education financing, prevent student debt, and aid struggling borrowers. She underscored that fostering increased program completion is the most important thing community colleges can do to prevent negative student loan outcomes. Colleges should work to reduce time to degree, provide enhanced student supports, and advocate for better pre-college preparation.

The second panel featured two higher education and workforce advocates – Karishma Merchant, associate vice president of policy and advocacy at Jobs for the Future, and Jennifer Stiddard, senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition – who spoke on the JOBS Act, alternative short-term Pell proposals, and the outlook for movement on this key AACC issue. 

Both former Senate staffers, Merchant and Stiddard explained the legislative history of the JOBS Act and efforts to expand Pell eligibility to students in short-term programs. While the policy change enjoys broad bipartisan support, advocates have not yet been successful in attaching the provision to the right legislative vehicle. Both panelists agreed that the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending package could be an option for advancing the bill.

The event concluded with remarks from David Baime, who thanked attendees for participating in the AACC event and engaging with policymakers to advance community college priorities. 

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Kathryn Gimborys is a government relations manager at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Alexis Gravely is a legislative analyst at AACC.

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