The American Association of Community College’s (AACC) Office of Government Relations hosted its annual Advocates in Action meeting on Monday and Tuesday. More than 70 community college presidents, government relations directors, and other campus administrators convened in Washington, D.C. for an intimate, off-the-record seminar series with the Beltway’s top higher education policymakers, experts, and advocates. Attendees were able to ask questions and gain insights to inform their meetings on the Hill with members of Congress and their staff .
Attendees gathered at the National Center for Higher Education early Monday morning for a marathon day of content. AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus welcomed attendees and underscored the importance of amplifying the community college perspective to policymakers in our nation’s capital.
The day’s first panel featured top lobbyists in the higher education policy arena, bringing decades of experience crafting and advancing policy on the Hill and in the Executive Branch. John Colbert from Capitol Hill Partners, Vic Klatt from the Penn Hill Group, Robin Juliano from Cornerstone Government Affairs, and Vince Sampson from Cooley LLP each outlined where they see the biggest challenges to and opportunities for policy reform in the current political landscape. Partisanship was mentioned as a continued obstacle, especially to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and other comprehensive proposals. However, the panelists were hopeful that the effort to expand Pell Grants to short-term workforce programs could be enacted this Congress.
After a short break, attendees heard from James Kvaal, Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and the top higher education official in the Biden Administration. Under Secretary Kvaal underscored the Biden Administration’s commitment to community colleges and their mission. He gave an overview of the Department’s top priorities, including promoting college affordability and ensuring programmatic quality.
Amy Laitinen, Senior Director for Higher Education at New America, and Sandy Baum and Jason Delisle, both senior fellows with the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, participated in a lively discussion on higher education data and program quality. The panelists shared their policy considerations around short-term workforce Pell, Gainful Employment and broader accountability, and promoting college access and affordability in a long-term, sustainable way.
Another panel included top journalists covering higher education issues and actions in Congress and at the Department of Education. Chris Quintana from USA Today, Michael Stratford from Politico, and Katherine Knott from Inside Higher Ed spoke about how they approach covering and elevating important higher education issues and important stories that they hope to cover in the future.
AACC’s Office of Government Relations led a briefing on the community college legislative agenda to prepare attendees for their meetings with congressional members and staff. They highlighted the Tax-Free Pell Grant, AACC’s appropriations priorities, continued support for short-term, workforce Pell, and efforts to secure new investments in the reauthorization of the Farm Bill.
A lunchtime keynote was provided by Matthew Green, Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Politics at Catholic University. Green provided an overview of the role of political parties in policymaking and how recent changes to the strength of parties in Congress, the increasing share of populist members in the House, and other factors impact the outlook for bipartisan legislation and regular order moving forward.
Finally, Melanie Storey, Director of Policy Implementation and Oversight at the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) spoke about the agency’s activities around FAFSA simplification, changes to the federal needs analysis, return to repayment, and the Biden Administration’s loan relief efforts. In addition to covering FSA’s agenda and actions, Storey gave her insights on why thoughtful and effective policymaking must be intentional about implementation and operations.
After a full day of content, Advocates in Action attendees went to the Hill in support of the community college legislative agenda, meeting with members of Congress and their staff, before returning to Dupont Circle for a networking reception at the historic Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C.
The second day of Advocates in Action was held in the House Education and Workforce subcommittee hearing room on Capitol Hill, allowing attendees to hear from policymakers in the same room where higher education policy is discussed and debated.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), also a member of the committee, kicked off the morning by praising the work of community colleges and committing their continued support of the institutions and their students.
Following the representatives, a panel of Democratic and Republican staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee discussed the legislative priorities of committee leadership. Much of the conversation was focused on the goals of both parties in reaching an agreement on final legislation that would make short-term job training programs eligible for Pell Grants. Some of the challenges of reaching agreement surfaced as well.
House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) spoke after the panel about her support for workforce Pell Grants, as well as accountability measures for higher education institutions. She spent time after her prepared remarks taking questions from attendees.
Rep. Lori Chavez-Deremer (R-Oregon), also a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, spoke about the innovative programs happening at the institutions in her district and her commitment to work in a bipartisan fashion. The last congressional speaker was Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Arizona), who relayed how his time at Pima Community College was essential for his current success.
Advocates in Action concluded with a presentation from Leah Kostner from the Congressional Budget Office, who discussed CBO’s role in the policymaking process and how the office calculates their budget projections, as well as what those projections mean.
The meeting will be held again next September for AACC members who are interested in engaging with higher education policy on a deeper level. Stay tuned for further details.
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Alexis Gravely is a legislative analyst at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Kathryn Gimborys is a government relations manager at AACC.