A Better Future is Possible: On Policy Advocacy for Student Affairs Professionals | Rebecca S. Natow

A Better Future is Possible: On Policy Advocacy for Student Affairs Professionals

By: Rebecca S. Natow

In November 2020, I had the honor of giving the closing keynote address at the historic 40th annual conference of the Long Island Council of Student Personnel Administrators (LICSPA). This was a historic conference not only because it was the organization’s first virtual conference, but also because of the moment in history in which we found ourselves. As we convened for the conference during the first week of November 2020, the world was in the midst of a global pandemic due to the international spread of a highly contagious novel coronavirus. This was also a period of great economic stress, including a time of drastic resource constraints for higher education. The theme of the conference, From Hurting to Healing, was an apt characterization of higher education at that critical time; the sector was hurting and searching for ways to heal. With the stakes for students and institutions so high, the message of my keynote address was for student affairs professionals to consider how they could advocate for policy change that would benefit college students, institutions, and the important work of student affairs.

Current Context

During the 2010s, higher education in the United States faced significant challenges. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2012, 2019), college enrollments nationwide dropped by over 2 million students between 2011 and 2019. Moreover, as Grawe (2018) wrote in Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, the United States expects to experience a decline in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the population beginning in the year 2026. Thus, the population of those who have historically been the traditional college-going age will begin to decline. Enrollment drops are problematic for colleges and universities, which have become increasingly reliant on tuition as a key source of revenue.

Higher education has also experienced declines in state funding as a share of institutional revenues. According to Pew Charitable Trusts (2019), state government funding for higher education declined by more than $2 billion between 2007 and 2017. As state funding for higher education became scarcer and the cost of doing business for colleges and universities continued to climb, tuition prices increased. The College Board’s (2019) Trends in College Pricing report indicated that tuition increased almost threefold at public four-year colleges between 1989 and 2019, and has more than doubled in that same time period for community colleges and private four-year colleges. Against this backdrop, recent Gallup surveys found a decline in public trust for higher education and that approximately three quarters of respondents believed that higher education is simply unaffordable (Gallup, n.d.).

All of that was happening before the pandemic struck.

In Spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 around the world led to a mass transition of higher education classes and programs online. Campus events, activities, and programs, including once-in-a-lifetime events such as graduation, were canceled or held virtually. Students were told to vacate their residence halls, and some had no contingency plans for where they could live (Kamentz, 2020). The pandemic was particularly hard on students from underserved communities, many of whom were also experiencing the effects of racialized trauma (Harper, 2020).

On college campuses, institutional personnel who were not either deemed essential or furloughed from their jobs were mostly asked to work from home. Since then, colleges and their employees have been faced with numerous losses. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that colleges and universities across the U.S. slashed over 480,000 jobs between February and September 2020 (Bauman, 2020). Also, because of COVID-19, many colleges and universities have experienced a major drop-off in student enrollments (Sedmak, 2020).

It Does Not Have to Be This Way

All of the above paints a bleak picture of the current state of higher education; but the message of my LICSPA keynote address was: It does not have to be this way. What those of us who work in higher education have been experiencing – enrollment declines, inequities in college access and success, vanishing resources – much of this is the result of policy choices. In fact, a lot of what higher education has been experiencing in recent years has largely been the result of policy decisions.

Policy choices can deter access to higher education. For example, recent changes to federal immigration policy have deterred the enrollment of international students at U.S. institutions. Rampell (2020) observed that the U.S. government issued fewer international student visas – an approximately 70% decline – from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020, according to U.S. State Department data. As Rampell (2020) pointed out, this is certainly due in part to pandemic-related travel bans and closures of consulates and embassies where students apply for visas.

That said, other policy choices played into this as well, such as an announcement by the Department of Homeland Security in Summer 2020 that international students would not be permitted to stay in the U.S. if their classes were entirely online. The federal government later reversed much of this policy, but as Rampell (2020) also pointed out, international student enrollments had been on the decline even before the pandemic, and institutions have indicated that problems with obtaining student visas was a key cause of this decline. Because international student tuition is often a key source of revenue for U.S. colleges (Redden, 2017), declining enrollment of international students has added further stress to higher education institutions’ bottom line.

Indeed, much what troubles higher education today is the result of policy choices; and because these challenges are the result of policy choices, things can change. Changes in public policy at the state and federal levels can broaden access, equity, and diversity in higher education, incentivize enrollment in higher education institutions, and provide additional resources for colleges and universities. For example, studies have shown that student financial aid policies, such as the federal Pell Grant, have been associated with increases in college enrollment and persistence (Perna & Kurban, 2013; Protopsaltis & Parrott, 2017).

As individuals who understand the value of higher education, and as advocates for students and institutions, how can student affairs professionals go about influencing public policy for the better? For many years, I have conducted research on higher education policy at the state and federal levels. My research has given me the opportunity to interview a wide variety of policy actors – from policymakers and their staff, to advocates and lobbyists, to civil servants and college administrators. I have learned about how policy processes work and how advocates can promote policy change. Based on my recent research, what follows is advice to higher education professionals on how to advocate for policies that will bring more resources to institutions and make higher education more accessible and equitable.

Collective Action in Policy Advocacy

Collective action in policy advocacy is important. At a time when higher education is experiencing great resource scarcity and seeking much-needed tuition revenue, it is tempting to view colleagues at other institutions as competitors rather than collaborators. But higher education policy actors have stressed that collaboration is vital. As the old adage says, there is strength in numbers. As one of my interviewees, a policy representative at a higher education association, said:

When I think about the policy lens without trusted relationships across institutions, I don’t think we get very far … that’s what our leaders of the next decade are going to need to navigate … that balance of competition and collaboration, in order to sustain the enterprise and not just the individual units.

In other words, institutions’ policy advocacy will be strengthened by working with other institutions to argue in favor of policies that will benefit all of higher education.

Policy actors have stressed the importance of joining and supporting professional associations. These associations provide valuable networking opportunities for student affairs professionals and are vital to collaborating across institutions for policy advocacy. As another one of my interviewees said, institutions and their employees should act collectively and “use their numbers to help influence policy moving forward.”

Cultivate Relationships Within Policy Communities

Additionally, student affairs professionals can cultivate relationships with people in policy communities. That includes people who work in D.C.-based higher education associations who are focused on lobbying for higher education and often have decent relationships with policymakers and staff on Capitol Hill. As one of the policy experts I interviewed observed, “the university groups are so many and so prominent, and have had relationships with [Capitol] Hill forever.” Proximity to and relationships with policymakers contribute to D.C.-based associations’ knowledge about how policy processes work and how advocacy can be most effective (Natow, 2015).

Individual higher education professionals can also cultivate relationships directly with policymakers such as elected representatives or their staff in state capitols and Washington, D.C. Several of my interviewees stressed the importance of getting to know legislative staffers, as they are the ones doing the day-to-day work in the legislatures and are often more easily accessible than elected officials. One former congressional staffer I interviewed was disappointed when constituents thought congressional staff would not want to meet with them. This former staffer said, “Our door was open, and that always made me sad that people thought we weren’t accessible, and I was always like, ‘But we are.’” Knowing that policymakers are not only accessible but invested and interested in the knowledge that practitioners carry is important for building valuable policy partnerships.

Interviewees also asserted that people who work in student affairs can provide valuable information to policymakers based on their own experiences. One former congressional staffer explained that informing policymakers and their staff about programs and interventions that are working – or not working – on individual campuses is informative. This interviewee went on to say:

You don’t need to be policy experts, but [you] can say, “This is the outcome,” or, “This is the thing where you can help.”… [It] is really just something a lot of people feel like they’re not equipped to do, but you really are.

As professionals dedicated to students and campus communities, student affairs administrators’ expertise may be shared with key policymakers to provide them with relevant information to make important policy decisions.

Policymaking Processes

It is also important to learn about how policymaking processes work. The way policy is made in Congress is different from how it is made in the U.S. Department of Education, and federal policymaking processes are different from those at the state or local level. There are also differences in policy processes and contexts across different states. It is important to understand who the key policy actors are and at what points in the policymaking process the information you seek to provide is likely to be heard or to make a difference.

Higher education professionals can learn about policymaking processes through professional associations, whether via conferences, webinars, or policy-relevant information appearing on associations’ websites. Moreover, graduate schools of education often offer courses on public policy and higher education. One of my interviewees from a D.C.-based association shared:

In order to get more higher ed-friendly policy, we have to build those skills and flex that muscle when we need to. And so I just hope that there’s going to be more higher ed people that are interested in policy and that … carve the time out to devote to it, because it’s so important to the future of higher ed.

By gaining a deeper understanding of policymaking processes, student affairs professionals can determine how and when to approach policymakers and to advocate for policy change in a way that is likely to be effective.

Use Data to Advocate for Successful Programs

Another interviewee from a different D.C.-based association stressed the importance of learning about how to conduct research and assessments of one’s own programs, to know what’s working and what needs to be improved, and to use that data to make an argument for the program’s continued support. An example of this played out in the Summer of 2020 regarding a highly successful program in New York City. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, known as the ASAP program, was initiated at the City University of New York (CUNY) in 2007. Student participation in the program involves full-time enrollment, developmental coursework if needed, intensive advising, required tutoring and career counseling, tuition waivers, funding for textbooks and public transportation, a cohort model for certain classes, a student success seminar, and dedicated ASAP program staff (Scrivener et al., 2015).

This program is widely regarded as successful. Rigorous analyses of outcomes of the CUNY ASAP program found that participation in the program was significantly associated with credit attainment, degree completion, and enrollment at a four-year university in the near future (Scrivener et al., 2015). Research has also found that participating in the ASAP program led to increased three-year graduation rates from associate degree programs. Although the ASAP program requires a relatively large financial investment due to the intensive student services and tuition waivers, research has found that the program is cost-effective over time: because ASAP students tend to graduate more quickly, the average cost per degree earned has been less for ASAP students than for community college students who have not participated in the program (Scrivener et al., 2015). In light of this evidence, it is no wonder that the research organization MDRC has called ASAP “unparalleled” in its effectiveness at improving associate-degree completion rates (Sommo & Ratledge, 2016, p. 2).

But in the Summer of 2020, amid finalizing a citywide budget strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor of New York City proposed dramatic cuts to the ASAP program. St. Amour (2020) reported in Inside Higher Education that the mayor’s budget called for cutting $20 million from the ASAP program by not enrolling new students for Fall 2020.

Almost immediately, ASAP program supporters – including student advocates, city council members, and researchers – spoke out and made statements on social media in opposition to the proposed cuts. Some cited research showing the program’s academic and cost effectiveness as important reasons to maintain funding (St. Amour, 2020). Following the swift, vocal, and critical reaction to the proposal to cut ASAP support, funding for the program was restored (Johnson et al., 2020). Although it cannot be said conclusively that the data showing the effectiveness of ASAP was what prompted continued funding, advocates pointed to ample evidence of the program’s effectiveness in making successful arguments to maintain ASAP’s funding.

What Public Policies Benefit Higher Education?

Above I described some actions student affairs professionals can take to influence policymaking, but what about the policies themselves? What sorts of policies should student affairs professionals seek? What public policies are likely to increase higher education enrollments, equity, student success, and resources?

First, a large influx of federal funding is necessary to help pull higher education out of the economic crater created by COVID-19 and years of resource reduction. The pandemic has brought massive financial hardship to higher education and experts agree that without a large influx of federal funds, the economic fallout could last a long time (Vock, 2020).

Additionally, higher education would benefit from policies that make obtaining a college degree more affordable and equitable. Such policies include more need-based grants, as well as improvements to the efficiency of international student visa application processes. Policymakers should also sustain and even increase funding for programs such as CUNY ASAP that have proven successful at enrolling, retaining, and graduating students. Indeed, policymakers should award grants for institutions to replicate successful student-focused programs such as ASAP on other college campuses. As studies have shown, these programs require a large investment at the outset, but due to their success at graduating students, they more than cover their own costs over time (Scrivener et al., 2015).

Accomplishing this will not be easy. It will take time, energy, and resources. And we cannot rest easy after winning small victories. But it can be done. We can move “from hurting to healing” (LICSPA, 2020). With effective policy advocacy, a better future is possible for higher education and student affairs.

Author Biography

Rebecca S. Natow is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Department of Specialized Programs in Education at Hofstra University. Her research and teaching focus on higher education policy, higher education leadership, and qualitative research methods.


I thank Sofia Pertuz and Vikash Reddy for their feedback on an earlier version of this essay.





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