US campuses growing more divided in lobbying strategies

As annual lobbying spending drops to $75 million, bigger campuses take more control

June 4, 2020

US higher education is spending about $75 million (£60 million) a year on political lobbying, an amount that is both shrinking and becoming more concentrated and beneficial to the most powerful institutions, an analysis has concluded.

The assessment, covering some 20 years of expenditure reports, also finds universities increasingly hiring their political lobbyists from the halls of Congress rather than from within their own campuses.

Overall, said an author of the analysis, Christopher Marsicano, a visiting assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson College, US colleges and universities still advocate for policies of broad interest such as helping low-income students and immigrants.

But, Professor Marsicano said, there are growing signs in lobbying practices of leading universities acting more like self-interested businesses, with many major institutions far outspending even the biggest sector-wide associations.

Many higher education lobbyists, he said, will now admit of their profession: “We used to work together and now we don’t.”

In a study published in the journal Educational Researcher, Professor Marsicano and a co-author, Christopher Brooks, a doctoral student in educational policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tallied lobbying expenses from 1998 to 2017.

They found that higher education accounted for about 80 per cent of the $2 billion in education-related lobbying over that period. Broken down by groups, individual universities or their systems accounted for 22 of the 25 biggest spenders.

The only higher education association in the top 25 was the Association of American Medical Colleges, with $33 million in lobbying over the 20 years. The highest-spending university system was the Apollo Education Group, owner of the for-profit University of Phoenix chain, at nearly $34 million.

By contrast, the broadest-based US higher education association, the American Council on Education, with some 1,700 institutional members, ranked only 74th at $4.8 million. The main private grouping, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, was 40th at $6.5 million.

Federal requirements for reporting such data are not perfect, Professor Marsicano acknowledged. Some lobbying performed by associations, for instance, may be attributed in the data to their member institutions. Common practices such as a university president talking with a lawmaker also may not be fully reflected.

But overall, Professor Marsicano said, his data and discussions with lobbyists make clear an environment in which individual institutions can increasingly be found pursuing limited benefits such as tax exclusions and rights to donate sporting event tickets to lawmakers, and working with non-academic business partners that share similar interests.

More experienced lobbyists have been describing the change in atmosphere, he suggested: “They [lobbyists] say, ‘We used to be unified as a sector, and we’re increasingly being divided along lines of public versus private, and being divided along lines of older lobbyist versus younger lobbyist.’”

That is driven in part, he said, by universities hiring hard-edged political professionals rather than appointing deans or other campus leaders to represent them before lawmakers.

Higher education lobbyists don't necessarily accept the interpretations. The trend of hiring experienced political professionals is a simple matter of valuing effectiveness, said Jack Cline, the associate vice-chancellor for federal relations at the University of Kansas, who previously served in government on both the state and federal levels.

And while more prominent institutions can be big political players, much of their message - such as increased funding for research and student financial aid - is broadly helpful, Mr Cline said.

"They certainly have an important role to play," he said. "And they’re also good partners."

Either way, lobbying expenditures across higher education appear to be shrinking, the Marsicano-Brooks study found, from more than $100 million in 2011 to about $75 million in 2017.

Part of that may be due to the House of Representatives policy of 2011 that banned the use of “earmarks”, in which individual lawmakers would routinely add provisions to bills that benefited single individuals or entities.

Boston University is a prime example, Professor Marsicano said, having spent almost $20 million on lobbying over the 20-year period, placing it eighth among all education groups nationwide. BU has a leading centre for photonics research that has been aided by legislative earmarks worth multiples of the amounts it spent lobbying for them, he said.

But beyond the loss of earmark authority, he said, the bigger factor in the decline in higher education lobbying in recent years appears to be partisan gridlock, leading to a string of congressional sessions ranked among the least productive in US history.

“You’re not needing to spend as much,” Professor Marsicano said, “because Congress is not doing anything.”

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