Member View: Your Voice is Critical to Supporting Students

By Rick Clark

March 05, 2018

I have had the honor of serving on NACAC’s Government Relations Committee for five years, including the last two years as chairman. Additionally, I have attended Georgia’s Legislative Day numerous times and even presented at the state, affiliate, and national level on legislative issues. I helped plan this year’s Advocacy Meeting in DC along with our committee and tremendous NACAC liaisons, Mike Rose and Julie Kirk. Theoretically, I was among the “most qualified” to attend our Day on the Hill.

However, when Monday arrived and I showed up for my first appointment, I realized that I was not only ill-prepared, but I was also extremely uncomfortable and uncertain. Honestly, this situation had me seriously questioning if I could do this, because as you know, Washington can be intimidating, and when you walk into a dark, candle-lit room with music playing and people sweating...

Let me clarify—this was my 7 a.m. first-timers’ session at SoulCycle (apparently the one Michelle Obama attends). Now I’d been on a bike before. I’ve lifted three-pound weights before. And (thankfully off the grid of social media), I’ve also danced before. However, putting them all together was a new experience.

I won’t lie to you. There were times when I questioned my ability to continue. But then the instructor would offer some encouragement, or my two Southern ACAC friends, Pam Ambler and Betsy Bachert, who had invited (read: hoodwinked) me to come would give me a smile and a high-five, and I’d regain my rhythm and confidence. By the time I left SoulCycle I was tired but proud to have risen to the challenge.

And a few hours later, I’m happy to report that our members left the Hill feeling a similar mix of emotions—feeling tested, tired, but so glad they had come and committed to continuing.

Our preparation had begun the day before. On Sunday morning, we heard from experts on issues central to NACAC’s legislative priorities. Our first session was led by representatives from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) and The Century Foundation who discussed the state of for-profit education. They provided compelling videos and data showing the ramifications unethical admission and financial aid practices have on students, including many veterans. Among the most surprising facts: For-profit colleges enroll only 9 percent of all students, yet 33 percent of the borrowers who default attended for-profit colleges.  

Next we had the great privilege of hearing from The American Council on Education’s Lorelle Espinosa and Education Counsel’s Art Coleman. They delved into the recent rise of white nationalism as well as implications and questions surrounding freedom of speech and expression on college campuses. An important takeaway I had was to urge that enrollment leaders have a seat at the table as presidents, legal counsel, and other campus leaders make decisions about controversial campus speakers, violence on campus, and other related discussions.

Kelly Leon (Institute for Higher Education Policy) delivered our keynote address, which we broadcast on Facebook Live. She was outstanding in framing how to effectively talk about the value of education to those that are skeptical about such a large investment.

In the immediate wake of the recent tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School, we also found this an opportune time to broach a discussion surrounding violence in high schools and on college campuses. Attendees weighed in on a variety of topics surrounding school safety and school counselor training. NACAC CEO Joyce Smith, President David Burge as well as many members of the Board of Directors joined us to listen and understand our concerns, fears, advice, and suggestions about violence in the schools where we work. Please stay tuned for more information about how NACAC will work with our colleagues to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.

We rounded out our time that day by preparing for our visit to Capitol Hill. NACAC’s Director of Government Relations Mike Rose provided an incredibly comprehensive and helpful rundown of key NACAC priorities. He also highlighted current relevant legislation, offered invaluable tips on how to frame discussions and engage lawmakers, and provided details about transportation to the Capitol as well as detailed maps of all legislative buildings.

On Monday, 155 NACAC members from 46 states (members from Alaska, Delaware, West Virginia, and Wyoming can expect heavy recruitment for next year’s program) and several foreign nations headed to the Capitol to meet with legislators and discuss NACAC’s priorities (see their great work at #NACACHillDay). Does that sound uncomfortable? Do you question your ability to do something similar? I would like to challenge you that you are imminently qualified to get involved with legislative advocacy at your state, affiliate, or even the national level.

SoulCycle required three things: a water bottle, cycling shoes, and a waiver (I did not read the fine print). What does advocating through NACAC or your affiliate require? No, not all the answers. No, not a thorough understanding of the implications and history of every bill on the floor of the Senate. Instead, just these three things: that you love your students, you love your school community, and you love your state/country. You are ready, qualified, and desperately needed.

Our members left the Hill the same way I left SoulCycle: tested, tired, but dedicated to doing more. I hope you will get involved as well. Here are a few ways you can: Follow us on Twitter, contact your affiliate government relations committee chair, visit our Legislative Action Center, and/or contact me.  Your voice is critical to supporting students and I hope you join the discussion.

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