Mapping the Power of the Higher Ed Lobby

Blog Post
Nov. 1, 2022

The United States’ more than 6,000 colleges and universities provide critical benefits to individuals, communities, and local economies. Obtaining a postsecondary education equips individuals with new knowledge, skills, and abilities that are increasingly necessary for entering the job market, and it provides employers with skilled workers. These benefits extend to communities, as those who attend college tend to be more civically engaged. These institutions employ nearly 3 million full-time employees who teach and support students, conduct much of the nation’s research, maintain campus, and more. According to Department of Education data, these schools spend over $640 billion in their communities. College graduates also earn higher salaries on average, allowing them to spend more in the economy and provide increased tax revenue.

Given the broad reach and impact of higher education, it is not surprising that the industry wields significant power. Colleges and universities make up a large and complex industry and have differing missions, agendas, and constituencies. In an effort to understand the scope of the power higher education has in Congress, New America recently updated its visualization of the higher education industry, which maps institutions by Congressional district.

According to our analysis, the average Congressional district contains approximately 13 colleges and/or universities. Considering the different sectors of postsecondary institutions, this translates to an average of roughly four public colleges and universities, four private nonprofits, and five for-profits in each Congressional district. Of course, some have more and others have less. For example, Texas's 8th Congressional District has the fewest colleges (0), while New York’s 12th Congressional District has the most (44). These institutions can have an outsized voice with Members of Congress, as colleges and universities are often some of the largest employers in their communities and may have strong alumni networks they can mobilize.

Just like other industries, higher education has its own strong lobby that is very influential in local, state, and federal governments. While individual institutions are influential in their respective districts and states, they also come together to create associations that speak to Congress on behalf of their interests. Some associations represent specific types of institutions. For example, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) represents public research universities, land-grant institutions, and state university systems; the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) represents community colleges; the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) represents private nonprofit colleges; and Career Education and Career Colleges (CECU) represents for-profit colleges. This isn’t even an exhaustive list—there are associations for other public colleges, state higher education officials, financial aid administrators, and more. The American Council on Education (ACE) is the known ringleader; it’s the association of schools and associations. They pull institutions and associations together to use their strength in numbers to advocate for institutional interests. Collectively, these associations make up the “higher ed lobby.”

This higher education industry exerts political influence in numerous ways. Many people think of campaign contributions when considering this influence. Public and private nonprofit institutions do not contribute to campaigns, but for-profit colleges and universities and their membership organizations do. In the 2020 election cycle, the for-profit lobby donated $64,800 through CECU’s PAC. For-profit colleges themselves also contributed through their various PACs. The Apollo Education Group—which owns the University of Phoenix—donated $57,000, Adtalem Global Education—the former owner of DeVry University and current owner of Walden University, Chamberlain University, and others—contributed $54,000, and Perdoceo Education Corporation, the owner of three larger for-profit universities, gave $28,800 to Congressional campaigns. These donations are for just one cycle and exclude money donated to state and local elections, and donations from individual owners, investors, and executives.

The higher ed lobby also uses its power to reach the ears of policymakers through lobbying. Higher education institutions take in approximately $149 billion in federal funds, inclusive of financial aid to students, research grants, and contracts. That federal money is a lifeblood for each institution’s robust operations. It’s no wonder that higher education is on Capitol Hill nearly every day lobbying on legislation and regulations that impact that funding.

As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated communities across the country, colleges and universities ensured that Congressional representatives heard their cries for relief, both to keep campuses running and help students. More than $76 billion went to institutions in the three relief packages through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which helped them serve students and ensure continued learning throughout the pandemic. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Chair of the Senate education committee, stated that these funds played a vital role in, “Helping our colleges and universities help meet students’ basic needs and invest in everything from mental health services, housing, and child care, to providing direct financial relief.”

During those dark days, institutional and student interests aligned as colleges and universities argued for more relief funding, as approximately half of these funds were required to go directly to students in the form of emergency grant aid. But there are also instances where institutional and student interests do not align. It may not be in the institutions’ best interest, for example, for prospective students to know about the outcomes of programs failing to yield positive results—and institutions have worked hard to obfuscate the data. NAICU, the membership organization representing private, nonprofit colleges, drove the effort to prevent the collection of student-level data that would help students, parents, taxpayers, and more understand how students fare in higher education—for example, whether they graduate, are employed in the field for which they trained, and what they earn in their careers.

Another example where institutions leverage their power to influence policy is “Gainful Employment (GE)”. Since 2009, the Department of Education has attempted multiple times to put “Gainful Employment (GE)” regulations into place under a requirement in the Higher Education Act that all short-term programs of one-year or less and all programs at for-profit colleges lead to “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The Obama Administration put a GE rule into place that created a debt-to-earnings threshold to protect graduates from programs that saddled them with large debts and low earnings that were insufficient to repay their debts. Colleges and universities—particularly the for-profit industry—used whatever means possible to block their implementation, including court challenges. These efforts were successful under the Trump Administration, leading to Secretary DeVos rescinding the regulations in 2019.

Most recently, the Biden Administration began the process of writing new GE regulations to undo the damage of the Trump Administration. At the negotiating table—which included stakeholders representing institutions, students, and advocates—all the institutional representatives voted down the regulations, even though the student groups and advocates representing students voted in favor. Colleges and universities have been making noise and getting organized even before this process began—reaching out to Congress for help in preventing these regulations from coming to pass. In fact, a quick search of “gainful employment” through the U.S. Senate lobbying disclosures shows that, since President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, CECU and 6 for-profits have lobbied on this issue. Gainful employment is just one example of where the higher ed lobby flexes its political muscle on Capitol Hill.

The final vote on the proposed Gainful Employment rule by the Education Department on March 2022. The only down votes were from institutional representatives.

Students and families lack the same time, money, connections, and influence that institutions and the higher ed lobby have. The power of the higher ed lobby can work to the advantage of students when institutional and student interests are aligned. But when they diverge—such as when students and families are calling for institutions to be held accountable for the investment of money and time they make—it won’t be students with the loudest voice in Congress. When push comes to shove, the higher education lobby will almost always put their interests first and use their influence to tip the scales in their favor.

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