During a discussion on effective advocacy communications presented by the University of the District of Columbia last week, American Association of State Colleges and Universities Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis Tom Harnisch led a conversation on legislative advocacy communications best practices and strategies for schools with small staffs and marginal budgets.
According to Harnisch, current trends in state budget cuts to higher education are likely to privatize most colleges and universities by the year 2062, with smaller institutions at the immediate fringes of merger and closure.
“Students at major institutions are not the tipping point to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in the number of college graduates,” Harnisch said. “It’s the schools that are working with the largest number of students, like historically black colleges and others, which will help America get there.”
According to a 2013 AASCU report, per pupil state appropriations to public colleges and universities decreased by 30% between 1987 and 2012, a number which has negatively impacted operations and growth at institutions of all sizes and mission nationwide, even as financial outlooks have improved in post-recession years.
That reduction is part of a larger trend of dwindling support from state and federal resources. According to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, just 15 states produced increases in appropriations to state institutions between 2010 and 2015, against a national average decline of 2.4% across all states over the same period, with Louisiana as the nation’s worst with a 28% decrease over the same period.
Harnisch offered three strategies to counter incomplete narratives about growing costs of higher education, and the need for robust centers of public learning and research.
Use success stories to promote institutional outcomes. Demonstrating consistent care for public funds and support for mutually beneficial goals will be key. “No matter who gets into the White House this fall...or who is in charge in state legislation, whether it is a Democrat or Republican, the goal is to find out about the goals and ideas you have in common with that party or that official and making them stand out,” Harnisch said.
Amplify the notion of serving the public good. This strategy is a part of AASCU’s outline for legislative compacts between states and public institutions, outlined in its last report issued in 2013. “There are a lot of issues that colleges address for communities; fixing secondary systems of education, improving the environment, research on public health needs; if these stories can be shared, you improve your chances of creating attention for what your campus is doing to benefit the city, state around it," he said.
Stress campus accountability to legislators over your district. In its guidance, AASCU calls for public accountability, institutional agendas for workforce and economic development, affordability and market outcomes as the core tenets of any sustainable partnership to keep public institutions viable. Harnisch said messaging about reform in light of new budget and spending priorities is also a key, and not dwelling on previous standards or objectives lost to underfunding. “Don’t focus upon the funding that was lost, and how those things impacted institutional value. Focus on what you can do now, and how that can be enhanced with support from current and future appropriations.”