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What’s in store as we head toward the end of the 118th U.S. Congress? Let’s unpack the issues and dynamics that will impact our Jesuit colleges and universities in the months ahead, as we meet the challenge to upend the narrative that college is not “worth it” (especially as we prepare for the 119th U.S. Congress). While the data tells another story, we need to be intentional in making that data relevant and respond vigorously to statements that undermine confidence in higher education.

118th U.S. Congress
Elections: Everything happening in Washington, D.C. right now is in the shadow of the next Congressional and Presidential election. It influences the types of bills that are written, which ones are advanced, and the openness to bipartisanship. Rhetoric is ratcheted up and the blame game is in full swing. It will make for a challenging next six months.

Appropriations: The House Appropriations Committee is moving forward in advancing twelve bills. They have set allocations for each subcommittee and have advanced several bills through the full committee (Defense, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Legislative Branch, Military Construction [MilCon], and State-Foreign Ops). One bill, MilCon, has already been passed on the House floor. One of the last bills to advance will be the Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee Appropriations bill.

AJCU submitted testimony to both the House and Senate, urging each to make strong investments in federal student aid and higher education programs. The Fiscal Responsibility Act will impose real limits on federal spending, most significantly impacting non-defense discretionary funds. Republicans have objected to options/considerations that would provide additional funding to minimize cuts to education programs (and others). The Senate Committee has not yet established a timeline and has not advanced any bills. There will be real debate as the House, Senate, and the Administration seek agreement on this subcommittee bill, as it is expected that each will have very different funding levels for programs of interest to AJCU and the rest of the higher education community.

Oversight: Protests on college campuses have captured the attention and the ire of Congress. The House Education and the Workforce Committee has been the most active, holding several hearings on antisemitism on college campuses and calling college Presidents to testify to explain their positions and reactions to protests. Recently, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing entitled, “Crisis on Campus: Antisemitism, Radical Faculty, and the Failure of University Leadership.” The House Republicans have also announced an overarching investigation of ten colleges that will be conducted by six House Committees. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has also launched investigations into colleges and universities (resolutions have been announced in several of these cases). These are on-going and we should expect this oversight to continue through the elections, at least.

FAFSA: The last Government Relations column in Connections focused on the problems associated with last winter’s FAFSA rollout that continue to impact students and schools. While some of the problems have been corrected by the Department of Education, many in the financial aid community question whether the FAFSA will be ready and debugged by October, which could lead to delays in the next academic year. Because of past errors and delays, financial aid leaders are still scrambling to help students and package aid, working tirelessly to pave a pathway for them to attend college.

119th U.S. Congress: As colleges navigate the complexities of the end of this session, we should not expect the increased attention on colleges and universities to go away. We must be prepared and intentional in engaging in the debate around college value and responding to criticisms of higher education. No system is perfect, and certainly higher education has room for improvement. How can we talk with legislators about ways to improve college accessibility while dispelling the false narrative that college is not of value?

Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce’s new report, Learning and Earning by Degrees, asserts that college is still worth it:

“The data tell us time and again that a college degree is the most reliable pathway to the middle class: 74 percent of workers with college degrees have good jobs, compared with 42 percent of workers with no more than a high school diploma. These statistics indicate that Americans need both more access to affordable college education and more and better pathways to economic opportunity for workers without college degrees. But they also demonstrate that college degrees remain valuable both to individuals and to society.”

The report goes on to say, “Recent increases in the overall level of degree attainment have yielded substantial benefits for the United States. In the period from 2010 to 2020, the overall proportion of the population with a college degree rose by 6.7 percentage points, from 38.5 percent to 45.2 percent. These rising levels of degree attainment were associated with $14.2 trillion in net lifetime earnings gains,11 with benefits accruing to all racial/ethnic groups.”

We know that college matters. We need to confront the rhetoric that says it doesn’t and work in partnership with legislators to ensure policies and positions do not deter those who could most benefit from pursuing it. Per Congressional Research Service, over 93% of House Members and 99% of Senators have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree. And 64% of House Members and 79% of Senators hold post-secondary degrees. Further, 30% of the House and 51% of Senators have law degrees.

Which populations are policymakers and think tank leaders talking about when they say, “college isn’t worth it or it’s not for everyone?” According to the Brookings Institution, socioeconomic status is a predictor of college enrollment. “About 89% of students from well-off families go to college compared to 64% of students from middle-class families, and 51% of students from low-income families.”

While not true for every student, it is indisputable that a college degree opens doorways to careers and the middle class, benefiting individuals and our nation because an educated workforce can fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. We need to do more to explain to Members of Congress that their negative rhetoric will have the greatest and most negative influences on the very populations that have the most to gain from earning a college degree. Federal student aid, state aid, and institutional aid are the equalizers, and these investments are what allow students from middle- and low-income families to pursue their college dreams. If we want those benefits of college to accrue to a broader population, we need to work together to make college more accessible, not less.

In the next Congress, can we invite dialogue? Can we work together to consider other ways of framing this issue? Instead of saying, “college is not for everyone,” can we ask, “Is college right for you, and how can our government work to lift your goals, minimize borrowing and help you to achieve your dream…. one that pays off for students and society?”

It was the right option for so many of our federal policy makers: let’s make it a viable option for their constituents.

By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU