Tensions in higher education are running high. For the first time ever, society is beginning to question its value. College enrollment is down. And, with the anticipated reduction in high school graduates, schools will continue to have to fight harder for each new student. Disruption of the education and funding models is no longer a question of if, but instead when, it will occur. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) on the table, now is an ideal time to make sure your voice is being heard.
A Topic Too Important for Our Insecurities
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and speak with staff members on Capitol Hill about the future of financial aid. This was a completely new experience for me—and one that I never thought I would take part in. You can ask my husband: Politics and the legislative process have always been his thing; not mine. If you are more like me, the idea of advocating in Washington may be overwhelming, nerve-racking, and even cause you to have self-doubt. A bit of a perfectionist—as I think most financial aid professionals are—it’s hard to go into new situations where there are so many unknowns.
However, it is my hope that you will overcome those feelings—as I did—to help advocate for students and to continue to shape the future. Here are five things I learned during my visit that I think (hope) will help you find the courage to speak up in D.C.
- This Is Just the First Step in Building a Relationship
No relationship of value has only one interaction. This was probably the single-best piece of advice I received (Thank you, NASFAA President, Justin Draeger!). You are not looking to sway opinion in a single meeting. Instead, you are working to build relationships—and future opportunities—with staff members and elected officials. The purpose is to introduce yourself as a relevant and credible leader in your area.
Your goal for that first meeting is to have this interaction be the first of many; to be someone who comes to mind in the future as a subject matter expert and resource. In doing this, know your audience and its agenda. Try to use your alignment with them in your favor and frame your talking points around things that are important to both of you.
- You Know More Than They Do
Part of relationship-building is about credibility-building. Remember that you are the expert. You know a thousand times more than the person you are talking to about financial aid, college affordability, and the student experience.
Yes, I know that many people who sit on education committees have previously worked in higher education. But I would challenge you to find a single one who has experience in the Financial Aid Office. They need professionals like you to share insights on what is going on in your world—so they know what is, and is not, working.
You have a responsibility to your students and your institution to share your knowledge with the individuals who are developing policy that shapes our industry. As the expert, it is your responsibility to frame your opinions in a nice, neat gift box—topped with a bow. Remember to keep things at a relatively high level. Otherwise, you will lose people—and that doesn’t help you build those all-important relationships.
No matter how excited you get about calculating R2T4 or the intricacies of a credit hour, your excitement will be lost on those you are meeting with. Talk to them in a way that makes your insights easy to digest.
- They Work for You
Those people you’re meeting with? They’re elected officials—and they have an obligation to listen to their bosses. You are one of those bosses. At work, we have an obligation meet with our employees to ensure that they are staying on track. Your meetings in Washington should be no different.
Elected officials need to be reminded of, and educated on, the expectations of their constituents. Even under the best circumstances, elected officials can get it wrong. Though well-intentioned, poor interactions with representatives of the industries they are regulating can lead to unintended consequences that are long-lasting.
- Take Comfort in Numbers
Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of attending meetings like this by myself was daunting. I worried that I was not going to connect quickly—or that I would forget what I wanted to say and there would be awkward silence. Finding someone willing to attend meetings with you can alleviate some of this stress.
Ensure that you pick your partner wisely. Knowing that there is a second person to lean on for ideas, examples, and support can significantly reduce your anxiety level. Identify someone whom you mesh well with and who holds similar opinions and ideas. Doing this will give you a partner and a source of feedback for improving your interactions in the future.
Besides the emotional support and backup, it’s nice to have someone to talk to while waiting on security and traveling between appointments. Navigating Capitol Hill can be a little overwhelming—I’m grateful that our National Director Mark McGinnis was there for me!
- You Are in the Driver’s Seat
You asked for a meeting because you have something to say. There is a concern, point of view, or opinion you want to make sure is expressed. You are the one who is in control of the agenda of this meeting and others are there to listen and ask questions.
Just remember that your meeting will be relatively short, normally 15–30 minutes, so your agenda does not need to be long or overly formal. Go into it with two or three key things you want to articulate. If this is an initial relationship-building meeting, make sure you are discussing the things that are important to you—and are most likely to be supported by the individuals you are talking to.
And, when all else fails, make sure you keep it simple. Politicians do not care about the minutia of aid administration. You need to instead speak to them in terms they will understand and appreciate. Get out of the forest so you can see the trees (and the cherry blossoms!) and you will be fine.