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Terry Hartle, a white man with gray hair wearing a collared shirt.

Terry Hartle

American Council on Education

In three decades as chief lobbyist for the American Council on Education, Terry W. Hartle had a front-row seat for just about every important federal policy discussion that affected colleges, their students and their employees. He retired this winter after 30 years as senior vice president for government and public affairs at ACE, the higher ed association that tries to present a coherent front in advocating for higher education.

In a recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, Hartle explored the partisanship and inertia that afflicts today’s politics, politicians’ increased questioning and oversight of higher education, and the implications for colleges, their employees and their students.

An edited transcript of that discussion follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Over your years paying attention to higher education politics and policy making from numerous angles, what has changed the most in the expectations and perceptions politicians and policy makers have regarding America’s college and universities? And what are the implications of those changes for the institutions and their employees and students?

Hartle: I should start by noting that while I am still a senior fellow at ACE, I am not speaking for ACE these days. So what you’re going to get is essentially Terry Hartle unplugged.

The first thing that occurs to me is the vast expansion of the federal role in higher education and scientific research. When I got to ACE, the federal government was spending about $5 billion a year on the Pell Grant program. Today we’re spending $25 billion to $30 billion on Pell Grants. When I arrived it was $14 billion or $15 billion in student loans. Today it’s almost $100 billion a year.

Veterans’ benefits when I arrived were less than $600 million a year. Today it’s over $12 billion. And research funding was somewhere in the vicinity of $10 billion. It’s over $50 billion going to colleges and universities today.

So we’re looking at federal support of somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion 30 years ago and $175 billion or $180 billion today. With that money has come much higher expectations, much higher requirements, and it creates much greater dependency for institutions on decisions that are made in Washington. The federal government is a vastly bigger presence in American higher education than it used to be.

The second thing is that when I got here, higher education had been largely bipartisan on Capitol Hill. Congress had recently passed the higher education amendments in 1992. I think there were three or four no votes in the House. I don’t think there were any nay votes in the Senate. That wouldn’t happen today, simply because everything is much more partisan in Washington than it used to be.

Higher education has become a front line in the culture wars whether we like it or not, and we don’t like it. People care what we do and say and teach and study on our campuses. And there are some people who think we ought to be more careful in what we think and study and teach, and want to invoke laws, or want to use the power of the state, to guide the directions we are going in.

When I got here, Americans were very optimistic about the future of the country. The U.S. had just apparently won the Cold War, and trust in American institutions was generally pretty high. That is not the situation the U.S. finds itself in today. Trust in institutions has fallen across the board. The good news for higher education is that, compared to other institutions, other parts of society, the public still has a relatively high degree of trust in colleges and universities. But the bad news is that the level of trust is much lower than it was a generation ago.

Inside Higher Ed: A lot to unpack there. The financial presence you described has obviously come with greater expectations. A lot of people in higher education like the greater financial presence, and less so the increased expectations that have come. Do you think those are proportional today? A lot of people feel that the federal government is too involved, and when I’m talking to people, I make the point you just made, which is that they’re giving you a lot more, so it’s not unreasonable to expect a lot more. Do you think the increased demands are reasonable, fair or are they just what they are?

Hartle: They’re what they are. If the federal government puts a lot more money into higher education, it is only reasonable and appropriate to expect that more regulation and oversight will follow. What the federal government doesn’t often do as well is think about how to design that oversight so that it addresses the public concerns clearly and unambiguously, but doesn’t create such a nightmare of problems for people to comply with it.

The Department of Education occasionally does things in extraordinarily complicated ways that make it virtually impossible for campuses to comply, because they don’t necessarily know what the rules are. One example would be reporting on money that campuses get from foreign corporations, governments, or individuals, the so-called Section 117 requirements. We’ve been pleading with the Department of Education for five years to publish regulations, so people know exactly how they’re supposed to answer the legislative demand for information.

“Any number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have said to me, ‘Your institutions don’t do anything for my constituents.’ I don’t agree with that, but it’s what they believe, and the idea that higher education only serves one part of the political spectrum, is only interested in one set of views, is potentially very, very damaging.”

This law was written in 1986, and when Congress put it in place, the assumption was “This is pretty straightforward. Nobody is going to need too much information about how to comply.” But over a generation, the financial arrangements between colleges and universities and foreign governments and individuals have become far more complicated, and there are lots of questions that campuses need answers to. We can see that across the board in federal higher education policy.

Inside Higher Ed: To the point about partisanship, I frequently test myself, as somebody who’s been around a long time, to figure out if I’m engaging in recency bias. A year ago I thought about doing an episode of the podcast about whether the politicization was worse than it had ever been, and it was still a question to me back then. I’ve answered that for myself now: it is different. With your long view, do you think it’s worse than it’s been?

Hartle: Yes, it’s worse than it’s been. There is an enormous level of tension and polarization within America’s civic culture that is reflected in the public’s attitudes and public policies toward colleges and universities. On one level, this is because people believe what happens on college campuses is important, what gets taught and studied matters, and therefore people want to make sure that what is taught and studied is consistent with their world view.

I mentioned a while back that most reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act until the recent times passed with almost no dissenting votes. Political controversy in federal higher education policy just didn’t exist when it came to the legislation. Today we’ve reached the point where the federal government can’t reauthorize the Higher Education Act because things are so controversial they can’t even get started.

So things are worse now than we have seen in our lifetime. But you and I are old enough to remember the end of the Cold War, and there really was an era of good feelings that lasted for much of the 1980s, the likes of which we haven’t seen since then. Certainly not since the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks.

But if we go back further in history, we have seen periods when higher education has also been very controversial. In the Depression, Republicans used to ask each other, how does one get to Washington, D.C.? And the answer to the question was, “You go to Harvard and turn left.”

Americans have a long since seen higher education as being left of center. Higher education was on the front pages of the newspaper in the 1950s with the McCarthy investigations into Communist influence and public organizations. Many college and faculty members were hauled up on Capitol Hill to testify about their views.

In the ’60s the campus protests over civil rights and Vietnam were certainly a flash point. We saw Ronald Reagan run for governor in California, pledging to fire the president of the University of California if he was elected, which of course he did. That sort of stuff sounds almost ripped from today’s headlines. But we didn’t hear much about that between 1970 and 2020. These things go in cycles, and we are in a particularly challenging cycle for campuses to manage at the present time.

Inside Higher Ed: What could you envision swinging the pendulum back? Can it be swung back?

Hartle: Could it swing back? Yes, because it has swung back in the past. Sometimes the cause of the challenge goes away—the war in Vietnam ends, and we went through a period when college and university campuses were incredibly quiet. What changes things now? Don’t know. Sometimes you think a major national crisis would perhaps reset America’s civic culture. But we went through the pandemic, and that does not seem to have been the case.

It’s become clear that elections and control of the government can turn on a small number of votes and a small number of places, which raises the stakes on political control and political elections, appealing to the party’s base, getting out the vote and then responding to the mandate that you believe you have been given. That’s just a different world we’re living in than what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.

Inside Higher Ed: You touched on the public perception. Do you have an opinion on whether the politicians’ views drive the public’s views, or is it the reverse? A lot of politicians purport to be carrying out the views of the public they are elected to represent. But the public often seems to be influenced more these days by what their representatives are telling them than the other way around.

Hartle: Social media allows a single incident to become a matter of great public visibility and importance in a way that really wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago, because the local news would have largely contained it. A lot of what we’re seeing is social media, and whether it’s people on social media who are identifying something and highlighting it, and thereby political officials pick it up, or whether it’s political officials identifying something and shooting it out and social media simply grabbing on to it, I don’t know. But social media so amplifies voices and steers a public debate and discussions that that’s really more at issue than politicians or the public.

Inside Higher Ed: We have seen public confidence in higher education decline. Which of the prevailing public impressions keep you up most at night?

Hartle: The public thinks the value of higher education has declined, and I think that’s pretty ruinous, because postsecondary education of any type can be expensive, and if the public thinks the value has declined, they won’t pursue it.

The economic return to a postsecondary education remains very high. The benefits to going to college significantly outweigh the benefits of not going to college on any measure of social wellness demographers can devise. College graduates are much better off over their lifetimes on average than people who don’t go to college. Are there guarantees of success? No, there never have been.

But the public’s view that somehow the value is declining is a serious challenge, and a lot of institutions, particularly institutions that are always conscious of their enrollment, worry a great deal about demonstrating value to the public. Value is something that happens over a lifetime. It’s not easily quantifiable in the first year or two after leaving school.

The second thing that worries me is a belief that colleges and universities are so ideologically set in their orientation that they are hostile to certain parts of American society. Any number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have said to me, “Your institutions don’t do anything for my constituents.” I don’t agree with that, but it’s what they believe, and the idea that higher education only serves one part of the political spectrum, is only interested in one set of views, is potentially very, very damaging.

The data on public support for higher education finds that support among Democrats has actually gone up considerably and support among Republicans and Independents has fallen. I particularly worry about the Independents because they’re in the middle of the political spectrum, and if that’s what they believe, that’s very problematic.

Inside Higher Ed: I have seen you characterized, and maybe caricatured, as the architect of this “higher education lobby” that people in the think tanks like to talk about, and I’m curious, as the mastermind behind that lobby, do you think the idea of a higher ed lobby is exaggerated?

Hartle: I’ve always been enormously amused by it. It’s a compliment to have people think that higher education is an absolute advocacy machine that simply turns the switch and gets everything it wants to happen. But nobody who is a part of that alleged machine believes that; in fact, it’s a source of some amusement to many of the people who do higher education advocacy to realize how much power some people think we have.

Higher education does not have a PAC. It does not do campaign contributions. We don’t do issue advertising. Higher education doesn’t endorse candidates. I can’t think of another large segment in America that tries to influence public policy without any of those relatively modern political tools.

All higher education has is a capacity to get all parts of the higher education community on the same page as it approaches public policy issues, and it has a pretty good number of reasonably influential constituents. Now, mind you, those constituents aren’t always easy to engage, and they don’t want to be engaged very often, so you can only go to them once or twice a year for help.

The strength of the higher education community really is finding a common ground that is good for all institutions and all students, and talking about it from that perspective and getting campus officials engaged. It’s flattering to have people think how strong higher education is, but nobody who’s close to the work that I do in the organizations I deal with really buys that.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned alignment between the sectors as being important. Tensions generally occur when dollars tighten up, and we seem to be entering a period like that now. Do you generally think there is more alignment between the various parties in higher education than there is disagreement?

Hartle: That’s really the central question for the higher education community in public policy: Can they find enough common ground that everybody is seeking the same thing from public policy makers? Success depends on having everybody on the same page. When we don’t get everybody on the same page, we’ve simply taken ourselves out of the public policy process.

You’re a congressional staffer or a Department of Education official, and you hear one thing from one part of the higher education community, another thing from another part and a third thing from other people. You don’t know what to think, and basically that frees you up to do whatever makes the most sense to you. Success in Washington depends on getting everyone on the same page of the hymnal, singing the same tune. When we do that, our chances of success are certainly not guaranteed. But they are a lot better than when we don’t.

Inside Higher Ed: What would you characterize as your greatest success, and your greatest failure or regret, from 30 years overseeing this powerful lobby?

Hartle: Yes, this advocacy machine (laughs). I was over all pretty successful in getting the community on the same page most of the time. and when we weren’t on the same page, we were generally pretty good at not shooting at each other. We sometimes would agree to disagree, but we would agree to do it without attacking the other side.

Specifically, the $78 billion that the federal government provided in COVID relief funds to institutions and students. It was by no means guaranteed that the federal government would provide a substantial amount of money to colleges and universities. The money that the government provided clearly stabilized colleges and universities at an extraordinarily challenging time. There were a lot of a difficult, even angry, conversations about how to structure money going to college and universities, but eventually we got there, and it was basically in the form of institutional aid, which is not something [the government does] very much.

“Higher education has become a front line in the culture wars whether we like it or not, and we don’t like it. People care what we do and say and teach and study on our campuses. And there are some people who think we ought to be more careful in what we think and study and teach, and want to invoke laws, or want to use the power of the state, to guide the directions we are going in.”

Regrets: I continue to be disappointed that we haven’t made more progress in boosting the maximum Pell Grant to make public higher education tuition-free for the lowest-income students. We’ve made some progress in recent years, but we still have an awful long way to go. And now that we’ve seen as a recurrence of concern about federal spending levels, there’s reason to be worried about whether we’ll continue to make progress.

Second regret: the mind-numbing complexity of the federal student aid programs. This makes it impossible for students and families to see what their options will be and what their obligations will be. We have about a dozen student loan repayment options at the present time. No wonder people are confused about what they have to do to repay student loans.

We’ve seen some things happen at the margin, but … to really address some of the growing problems in the federal student aid programs, we need to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and my third regret is that we have not.

We last authorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, and [there is] no immediate chance of getting it reauthorized. You need some level of bipartisan compromise to move forward on the reauthorization. In [the current] environment the chance for significant rethinking, re-orienting, clarifying, simplifying, streamlining of federal financial aid seems a distant dream, and that dramatically undermines the goal of helping low-income, first-generation students participate in postsecondary education.

Inside Higher Ed: What do you think politicians and policy makers understand least well about American higher education and vice versa, what do you think faculty members and administrators understand least well about policy makers and politicians? Assuming there are gaps in those understandings, what are the biggest consequences of those gaps?

Hartle: One of the biggest jobs the person in my previous position has is to explain colleges and universities to government officials, and to explain government officials to colleges and universities. This is really a case, as C. P. Snow would have said, of two worlds. Policy makers underestimate the complexity and diversity of the higher education enterprise. Most policy makers went to traditional campuses where they were residential students, so their mind-set for thinking about higher education is their own experience, or possibly the experience of their kids, the vast majority of whom will also have gone to traditional colleges. They can start from that perspective and not [recognize] that the vast majority of college students don’t look like that, and a simple, straightforward solution to challenges we face may not work equally well for all parts of the enterprise.

Most people in higher education overestimate the extent to which rational arguments and data work. An awful lot of people on college campuses just think, if we find the right words to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, surely people will agree with us. It’s often very hard for people who are doing important, noble work to realize that other people may not quite see things as they do. Explaining colleges to government officials is one thing; explaining government officials to college officials is actually the harder part of the task.

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