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Member View: How to Make a Difference

By Joe Freeman, Director Of College Counseling at the Beacon Academy Chicago

January 04, 2018

The political climate in the United States can chill the heart of the most ardent and optimistic school counselor or college admission professional. Our state legislators negotiate a wide array of issues critical to the work we do: school funding formulas, which are often unfair; funding for our public colleges and universities, which have too often been cut in recent years; and underfunding need-based financial aid programs. In Washington, DC, the current administration has prioritized deregulation and plans to limit the federal role in higher education, mirroring a similar decision made in 2012 when Congress limited the US Department of Education’s ability to influence how states and localities educate our nation’s K-12 students. Congress appears to be supportive of this deregulation effort while also making college more expensive by reducing funding for student financial aid programs, potentially eliminating repayment options, and ending important tax deductions for borrowers and/or their parents. For students and those of us in the college access profession the future can seem uncertain, even scary.

But admission professionals should be energized by these developments. We know firsthand how damaging state budget woes can be to our enrollment efforts. We can speak with authority about students too frightened to submit a FAFSA out of fear that doing so may result in detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or other law enforcement. We support students every day who dream of attending college and for whom every penny of a state grant, federal grant, and/or subsidized loan critically determines whether they will be able to attend college next semester. We counsel students who envision lives of public service but who feel forced by their economic circumstances to pursue more lucrative work in the private sector. We know students from other countries who choose not to study in the United States because of potential visa barriers or the perception of a xenophobic, unwelcoming atmosphere. We know what happens to surrounding communities when traditional colleges falter, for the presence of our institutions has an outsized impact on the economic development of our communities. We see how bad actors in higher education prey on first-generation students, service members, veterans, adult learners, and others by touting unfulfilled promises and dubious degree and certificate programs. We know that smart regulations can ensure positive outcomes for every student who pursues postsecondary education.

We are admission professionals. We have data. We have stories.

Our legislators need to hear those stories. NACAC and our regional affiliates provide members with opportunities to make our voices heard in Washington and our state capitols. I have been involved in legislative advocacy at the local, state, and national levels since 2011, when I moved from Connecticut to Alabama to work as a college counselor. I now live in Illinois, but since 2011, legislative advocacy has been a central part of my professional identity. While my conversations in Springfield, IL are quite different than the ones I once had in Montgomery, AL, the importance of my advocacy is the same. Republicans, Democrats, and independents all want strong economies and productive, employed constituents. Each time I have moved, the Government Relations Committee has taught me extraordinary lessons about my new school, local, and state communities and enabled involvement in my regional affiliate. Within a week of joining IACAC, I found myself wandering into a Government Relations Committee meeting at Concordia University, making connections with other admission professionals, learning the ins and outs of Illinois politics, and visiting a beautiful urban college campus in Chicago. As one who is comfortable writing letters and speaking to my elected officials, legislative advocacy proved an excellent way to learn about my affiliate. Attending the small committee meetings in the fall and winter made the IACAC Annual Conference much less overwhelming for me.

My government relations interest also allowed me to apply for and receive an IACAC Professional Development Grant to attend NACAC’s 2017 Day on the Hill in Washington, DC. This grant made legislative advocacy an affordable professional development opportunity for me. The advocacy training gave me confidence when meeting with my elected officials, provided insight into the issues facing this current Congress, gave me a sense of how Congress really works, and offered a glimpse of how NACAC’s legislative priorities might play out over the next year. My experience in Washington also allowed me to interact with our organization’s leadership at both the affiliate and the national level, a truly rewarding opportunity. The training itself provided transferable skills that I use every day: how to get to the point, how to redirect conversations around my priorities, how to speak effectively with busy people, how to engage a potentially unreceptive audience. These skills, honed through legislative advocacy, serve me well in my work with students and families.

While I had participated in NACAC advocacy before, I was a first-timer to Springfield for IACAC advocacy day in March 2017. In addition to the quintessential Springfield experiences—visiting the Statehouse and the Old Statehouse, seeing the only house Abraham Lincoln ever owned, eating my first Horseshoe sandwich — legislative advocacy in Springfield afforded me face-to-face time with my state senator and state representative. It allowed me to share my perspective on our state’s fiscal crisis as a school counselor, as a constituent, and as a local community member. I know the high school options in my representative’s district just as I knew the negative impact that Illinois’ budget impasse had on the university in my state senator’s district. Now when I see my state representative walking her dog down my street, I greet her by name, ask her about her family, and remind her of the importance of sufficient and equitable funding for the future success of our neighborhood’s children.

Government relations and legislative advocacy can feel like college admission to the uninitiated. Think about the admission myths we encounter with students and families: no one ever gets in; it’s unaffordable; it’s unfair; it’s confusing; or “it’s not for me.” We spend a lot of time overcoming this misinformation with our students, yet we carry similar misconceptions when considering legislative advocacy. Instead of believing that your voice does not matter, or that politicians only take time for big donors, or that the system is broken and there is no way you can fix it, or that you have no time, or that you have no public policy expertise, here are a few, easy steps you can take:

  • Call or write an elected official through NACAC’s advocacy website
  • Visit your (state or federal) legislator at her district office
  • Participate in a state or national advocacy day.

Our students find liberation from myths and stereotypes once they engage in the college admission process. As admission professionals, we can liberate ourselves from our cynicism and despair when we bring our professional expertise to the political process. The impact our legislative advocacy has on future generations of students will be transformative.

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