Anti-Lobbying Fever? Not in Higher Ed

Colleges, associations, lenders and others reported spending $95 million to influence the federal government in 2005, IHE analysis shows.
December 21, 2006

Lobbying and lobbyists may appear to be on the defensive in Washington, as invective and legislation to limit efforts to influence the federal government both have been tossed around with abandon of late. But higher education shows no signs of weaning itself of the practice, which is clearly on the rise.

Colleges and universities and others with a direct interest in higher education -- including associations, accrediting groups and lenders -- reported spending $94.6 million on lobbying Congress and top executive branch officials in 2005, an Inside Higher Ed analysis shows. That is about $15 million, or 18 percent, more than the $80 million they reported spending in 2004. (A list of who reported what can be found here.)

Among the highlights of the analysis:

  • 336 private nonprofit colleges reported spending a total of about $34.7 million in 2005, up from $29.4 million that 267 such institutions spent in 2004. Johns Hopkins University led the way with $1,020,000, up sharply from the $620,000 it reported spending in 2004. Boston University followed with $920,000 in reported spending.
  • 265 public four-year colleges and universities reported spending a total of about $35.7 million in 2005, up from $31.7 million that 233 such institutions spent in 2004. Many of the nation’s biggest state universities led that list, including the University of California system at $980,000 and the State University of New York System at $870,000 (plus more for some of its individual campuses). In many cases, the spending by individual public and private universities was aimed at getting a share of federal research money, often “earmarked” or “directed” funds specifically delivered by a member of Congress. (Note: This corrects an earlier version of this article that overstated the lobbying spending by the University of Pittsburgh.)
  • 80 community colleges spent a total of about $4.3 million in 2005, with 12 of them reporting expenditures of at least $100,000.
  • For-profit institutions -- which are known for making direct campaign contributions to lawmakers that nonprofit colleges typically do not -- reported spending about $2.1 million, with two of the sector’s biggest players – Apollo Group and Career Education Corp. – leading the way. Apollo, parent of the University of Phoenix, reported expenditures of $615,000 in 2005, down slightly from 2004’s $650,000, while Career Ed, which faced significant regulatory scrutiny in 2005, reported $600,000 in lobbying spending that year, up from just $80,000 in 2004.
  • Higher education associations reported spending a total of about $6.2 million, including $640,000 by the American Council on Education, $160,000 by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and $40,000 by the Association of Community College Trustees.
  • Banks and other entities in the student-loan industry reported spending about $5.7 million, led by Sallie Mae’s $1.46 million.

Here’s a look at the colleges, companies and others that reported spending the most on lobbying the federal government in 2005:

Institution 2005 total 2004 total
Sallie Mae $1,460,000 $1,160,000
U of Pittsburgh Medical Center $1,406,000 $980,000
TIAA-CREF $1,320,000 $620,000
Johns Hopkins U $1,020,000 $620,000
U of California system $980,000 $834,000
Collegiate Funding Services $940,000 $1,060,000
Boston U $920,000 $900,000
State U of New York Research Foundation $870,000 $905,000
College Loan Corp. $780,000 $800,000
U of Miami $730,000 $937,000
Wake Forest U Health Services $700,000 $600,000
American Council on Education $640,000 $160,000
Northwestern U $621,467 $180,000
California State U system $620,000 $580,000
Apollo Group $615,000 $650,000
Career Education Corp. $600,000 $80,000
Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority $570,000 $480,000
U of Chicago $550,000 $200,000
Rutgers U $540,000 $520,000
Science Coalition $540,000 $860,000

(Note: This corrects an earlier version of this table, excluding Case Western Reserve and Tulane Universities and the Universities of Pittsburg and Massachusetts at Amherst, and altering the figures for Rutgers University and the State University of New York System. Some of their expenditures were double counted.)

Taken together, the figures almost certainly understate the amount that the organizations actually spent on lobbying, because the federal rules that govern who must report expenditures under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and under what circumstances, ensure that much lobbying goes unreported.

Entities that do significant federal lobbying can decide not to file as lobbyists if they don’t meet the technical definitions of the law, and even those who choose to report are required to report only a narrow range of their lobbying activities. Often, "grass-roots lobbying" in which institutions or associations encourage their members to write their representatives about issues, visits by members of Congress to campuses, and even time spent preparing for meetings with Congressional staff aren't counted, depending on how much a college or other entity wants to dot its I's or cross its T's.

“There are all sorts of techniques that are not going to be covered by a dollars and cents figure,” says James D. Savage, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia and author, among other things, of Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel ( Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Even with those limitations, the lobbying figures that colleges and other higher education entities do report make clear that they are engaging in the practice with (increasing) gusto, even as the political winds might seem to be blowing in the other direction. That probably isn’t surprising when one considers the tens of billions of federal funds that flow into higher education, in the form of student financial aid, research money and direct support for institutions. And it is, experts on lobbying say, fully consistent with what’s happening nationally.

“Higher education is a big business, and a lot of money is involved,” says Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause, which promotes “open and accountable” government and, in the interest of full disclosure, itself reported spending $240,000 on federal lobbying in 2005. “And in general, all the trend lines are up. Lobbying has been a growth industry, a recession proof industry, and there is no indication we’re going to see any less” in the future.

There are several reasons why lobbying spending would appear to be on the rise in higher education. Wexler notes that the more heavily regulated an industry is, the more lobbying tends to increase, and the federal role in higher education has inarguably crept up in recent years. Entities also spend more, Wexler says, when issues important to them are “hot” and when key legislation is before Congress – and 2005 was when most of the discussion surrounding the extension of the Higher Education Act occurred. That would especially explain any uptick in lobbying spending by the Washington associations that represent colleges and their officials, as well as a portion of the lobbying reported by individual colleges, particularly for-profit institutions, which saw themselves as having much to gain in the deliberations over the Higher Ed Act.

Some of the biggest names in higher ed lobbying spending, such as Johns Hopkins and Northwestern, tend to have significant longterm research relationships that they seek to nurture; Hopkins has engaged in several major projects with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for instance.

But most of the growth in recent years in higher education lobbying – particularly that done by individual colleges and universities – has been in hot pursuit of federal earmarks, known popularly by the less generous term of pork barrel projects. Institutions that hire outside firms to lobby for them, rather than hire their own in-house lobbyists, are almost always primarily seeking earmarks, says Savage of UVa, because “private firms are all about earmarking.” A list of the lobbying firms to which higher education institutions paid the most in 2005 follows:

Firm 2005 total 2004 total
Van Scoyoc Associates $5,870,000 $5,540,000
Cassidy & Associates $4,800,000 $5,360,000
National Group $2,520,000 $2,002,000
PodestaMattoon $1,340,000 $1,020,000
Cornerstone Government Affairs $1,210,000 $880,000
Carmen Group $1,140,000 $1,320,000
B&D Sagamore $1,060,000 $1,200,000
Patton Boggs $1,030,000 $820,000
Livingston Group $1,000,000 $660,000
Russ Reid Co. $1,000,000 $960,000

Institutions that spend the most in-house on lobbying tend to take a broader approach, says Savage. "Places like UVa spend most of their time lobbying in favor of things like the NIH, the American Competitiveness Initiative, etc. They spend huge amounts of their time on general public poicy issues. They have to be full service to support the activities of their whole universities. There's just too much involved that goes beyond earmarking."

Chris Simmons, who since February has been Duke University's associate vice president for federal relations, has seen higher education's lobbying efforts from several angles, including as a government relations officer at two major college associations in Washington. But never in his 10 years in the business has he registered as a lobbyist under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and Duke did not report lobbying expenses in 2005, the year before he arrived, or this year (though the Duke University Health System, its medical complex, did).
It's not that Duke doesn't lobby: The university spends significant time pursuing its own institutional interests in Washington, as well as pushing for more federal student aid and spending on research programs like those at the National Institutes of Health. Simmons acknowledges that if he and his colleagues did more of the latter (lobbying for "the common good," in terms of more spending on student aid and science) than the former (seeking earmarks), college lobbyists could "make even more of a difference" than they do now. "Lobbying for research and poor kids to go to school -- I can't imagine a better thing to do than that," he said.
Like many higher education lobbyists, Simmons just hasn't felt it important to register as a lobbyist, since his work "technically hasn't met the time and money requirements" of the Lobbying Disclosure Act
But he and Duke officials have decided to have him register in the new year, in part because of the changing climate in Washington. "I think generally, transparency is better," he said.

Given the probability that colleges will keep lobbying just as aggressively as they have, and the possibility that more of them will see fit, in the current climate, to report what they spend on lobbying, it seems likely that lobbying expenditures will only rise in the future.

Early indications back that up: Several dozen colleges that did not register as lobbyists in 2005 have done so for 2006. Among them: Hiwassee College, Life and Roger Williams Universities, and the Universities of Nebraska and New England.


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