By Matthew J. Camp (Ph.D. ’21), Director of Government Relations at Teachers College

The following op-ed, "Books or Bombs?" by Matthew J. Camp, Director of Government Relations at Teachers College, first appeared in Inside Higher Ed on September 14, 2021.

Sept. 2 marked the anniversary of the National Defense Education Act, the law signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 to vastly expand funding for colleges and universities. The country has been the better for it ever since. Eisenhower famously warned about the military-industrial complex and how every dollar spent on a bomber could have been spent on a school.

Today, Americans realize the futility of spending $2 trillion over 20 years fighting a lost war in Afghanistan. What would the world look like if that money had been spent on education in that country and in ours? Now is the time for every college in the country to fight hard for the next massive investment in higher education. Quite simply, they should lobby for our future.

Unfortunately, higher education institutions have historically played defense when it comes to advocating for their own interests. For the past four years, colleges have spent lots of time and money responding to chaotic Trump-era proposals on immigration, free speech on campus, graduate student taxes, Title IX changes and restrictions on research. In most states, funding to higher education is much lower today than it was 20 years ago.

Colleges must go on the offensive. They need to push Congress to pass a once-in-a-lifetime human infrastructure bill, and there is a relatively small window of time to lobby a Democratic president and Congress that is inclined to further support education. Institutions should seize the day and build on-campus infrastructure to make lobbying a central function, now and in the future, so they can play a more complete game of offense and defense. That will enable colleges to have a strong voice when times are tough, as well as to ensure they aren’t left in the lurch when new opportunities arise.

Public and private nonprofit colleges have historically shied away from lobbying. My research shows that, from 2004 to 2014, 37 percent of public and private nonprofit colleges spent some amount of time lobbying, but many weren’t very consistent across those 11 years. Colleges, like a lot of nonprofits, may think lobbying could jeopardize their nonprofit status or that lobbying is unseemly. Neither is true. I’ve been a college lobbyist for 15 years and have been in not one smoke-filled back room. Lobbying is a highly professional and specialized job that requires deep knowledge of the issues and the political process.

Lobbying is a First Amendment-sanctioned right to petition the government and encompasses activities in support or opposition to specific pieces of legislation, regulations or budget items. At the federal level, an organization may employ an in-house lobbyist and does not need to register to lobby unless it exceeds $13,000 per quarter worth of lobbying activities. Once that limit is exceeded, the organization may continue to lobby but needs to file a quarterly report. The IRS allows nonprofit organizations to devote a substantial part of their budget to lobbying.

For most colleges, this means that they may not only lobby, but they may also devote significant staff time to doing so. The rules are quite clear: colleges may get deeply involved in the legislative process as long as they avoid electoral activities like making campaign contributions.

Additionally, colleges may engage in broader advocacy work, which involves issue-based efforts to mobilize public opinion. There are no federal statutory limits on advocacy, so colleges may — and should — speak up on vital issues like scientific research funding, student aid, infrastructure, immigrant rights, teacher education and undoing systemic racism.

Much can be gained by lobbying. Through lobbying, colleges can increase the chances of their collective voices being heard in state capitals and Washington, D.C., and boost the likelihood of securing funding. Earmarks -- funding that members of Congress direct toward organizations to benefit local communities — are now once again available for nonprofits. As local and regional economic engines, colleges are well positioned to lobby for those earmarks. A scan of the earmark requests of the House Committee on Appropriations shows a good start: colleges have requested funding for things like teacher education, early childhood, STEM education, pathways programs and lab equipment.

The truth is that most of lobbying is just showing up. In other words, it's vital to be consistently active to appear on the policy makers’ radar screens. Corporate lobbyists have been a regular presence in policy making for decades, successfully securing funding since pivoting from a defensive posture during the late 1960s and early 1970s regulatory era. I've been in adorned executive chambers and crowded legislative waiting rooms flanked by corporate lobbyists who’ve been after the same finite public dollars that could be devoted to education. President Eisenhower’s warning is still true: in many ways, it’s often either books or bombs.

Small-Scale Tactics

Colleges should not be shy about emulating some of the best practices of effective corporate lobbyists. Institutional leaders should design a formal lobbying strategy composed of small-scale tactics that are effective over time. Specifically, if you are one of those leaders, you should:

  • Mobilize the community. Most colleges have thousands of stakeholders whose voices can’t be ignored: students. Even if students aren’t registered to vote in a given district, policy makers still represent their interests. Students are our future and often enjoy practicing the civic engagement habits of attending rallies and writing letters to Congress.
  • Engage legislators. About a dozen elected officials, from the town council to the U.S. Senate, represent a given college. They work for you. Get to know your elected officials and their priorities. Invite them not to lecture at your students, but rather to involve them in interactive workshops. That builds mutual accountability and lowers the barrier to the future engagement of your students, faculty and staff.
  • Lean on your associations. When nonprofits lobby and advocate, they often do so with their professional and trade associations. Associations are great resources, usually employing government relations experts who can be helpful to colleges that may not have a full-time in-house lobbyist. The newly formed National Association of Standalone Graduate Schools has been successful in finding new funding for its members; such organizations are on the lookout for threats and opportunities. Associations help sectors secure larger pots of funding, while an individual campus may need to do additional lobbying to secure funds specific to its needs.
  • Activate allies. Higher education is facing another wave of anti-intellectualism and antiscience, ironically often spearheaded by elected officials who are themselves graduates of elite universities. While it’s probably not worth trying to persuade those who hope to earn culture-war Brownie points, you can indeed find value in “preaching to the choir.” That is, even if your elected official is “onboard” and supports education, research and student aid, they still need to hear from you. They particularly value stories of students who form careers and make local contributions thanks to your institution. In most congressional offices, every phone call, email and meeting is logged in and constituents’ opinions are tallied and shared with the representative, influencing their voting decisions. Elected allies may then share your stories with their colleagues who may be a bit more on the fence. This is the way to build momentum and rekindle American higher education as the envy of the world.
  • Think small. While colleges and their students want to change the world — and often do — legislation usually moves at a glacial pace. Thus, it’s important to consistently educate elected officials as they come and go about your institution’s issues. It’s not just about getting a bill to become a law: interim steps can be considered mini victories. For example, ask a legislator to support a bill or issue via Twitter. Find similarly situated institutions to build a coalition. Try to get a bill or resolution introduced and co-sponsored. Host a press conference. Take your students to your state capital. Publish an op-ed. Sit on a public advisory board. Such steps are self-reinforcing and will make a difference. You just need to take them.

As the old lobbyist saying goes, you’re either at the table or on the menu.