WASHINGTON -- As college presidents from across Ohio gathered here Wednesday at an annual meeting with Senator Sherrod Brown, they dealt with plenty of familiar issues: the future of Pell Grants, the Obama administration’s plans on college affordability, the need to attract more students to science and math.
Many of the presidents had a more basic question: Why does it take a flight to Washington to get Ohio’s community colleges, public universities and private colleges to sit down at the same table for a discussion?
“We really should do this more often,” a community-college president said to a four-year counterpart during a break in the meeting. But aside from Brown’s annual conference, she said, the colleges never do.
Since 2008, Brown, a Democrat, has invited his state’s college presidents (except for those of for-profit colleges) to a daylong meeting on higher education issues. While many college leaders meet with lawmakers one-on-one on periodic visits to Washington, Brown’s large group approach is unusual, gathering about 50 presidents every year to trade ideas, discuss statewide education issues and meet with policy experts. The college leaders praise the annual meeting as a combination of a legislative briefing and a networking event.
For Brown, the meeting burnishes his credentials as a supporter of higher education, as well as providing ideas for future legislation. The forerunner of the annual conference, a series of roundtable discussions Brown held with college presidents after being elected to the Senate in 2006, led to amendments he proposed in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Brown said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. The roundtables taught him something else: that many college presidents in his state didn’t know one another. The annual meeting was a result.
This year, the panels and speakers focused on the continuing possibility of cuts to Pell Grants and President Obama’s proposal to use campus-based financial aid programs to ensure colleges provide “good value.” 
In question-and-answer sessions with higher education lobbyists and White House officials, the presidents said they were concerned about possible cuts to Pell Grants in the proposed Republican budgets and expressed mild concerns about Obama’s plan for campus-based financial aid. But the plan did not draw as many critical questions as in other venues, including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting.
The subjects discussed at the meetings have varied: two years ago, access and affordability -- especially Pell Grants -- were a focus, while presidents last year emphasized workforce training and discussed the possible impact of attempts to end collective bargaining .
“It’s always good to interact with other presidents,” said Frederick Finks, president of Ashland University. “I think we spark each other.”
At the first presidents’ conference, Finks realized that Ashland wasn’t as well-connected in Congress as other Ohio colleges were, he said. When he returned to the campus outside Columbus, he immediately began calling state and local lawmakers. Now he visits Washington a few times a year and knows several representatives, as well as House and Senate staff members who work on education policy.
“Being there gave me the realization that there’s a lot of stuff happening in Washington,” Finks said. “We started building those relationships.”
Many of the presidents at Wednesday's meeting, especially four-year college leaders, said they visit Washington regularly to meet with members of Congress, alumni, or donors, or to attend conferences. But Brown’s meeting fills a unique niche, they said. The meeting is large enough to draw important speakers (including Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 and two White House domestic policy advisers this year), but small enough for everyone to have a say.
Brown, who spent 14 years in the House of Representatives before he was elected to the Senate in 2006, built a reputation as a frequent sponsor of higher education legislation. When Senator Ted Kennedy died in 2009, Brown’s name was mentioned  as someone who might eventually take up his role as a champion for colleges and financial aid. But he has been less visible on higher education issues recently, as Senator Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has grabbed headlines with his investigation into for-profit colleges.
"He gets the benefit of having us all in one place, greeting people under his auspices," said Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College. "I think it's a nice way for him to connect his state education officials to the people of Washington."
As the meeting began Wednesday morning, Brown mentioned several ideas the presidents have helped with in the past, including ways to improve college access and the need for more support for student veterans. One agenda item from last year returned: how to encourage colleges to work with each other and the private sector to improve job training, a small-group discussion that included two art institutes, community colleges and state universities.
One of the challenges was ensuring that students would enroll, said Tom Stuckey, president of Northwest State Community College. Another, said Lloyd Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo, was giving colleges enough control over their own curriculums to be able to introduce new programs without excessive regulation by state officials.
“Some issues pertain more to some schools or some groups of schools, but I think we all care a lot about access and affordability,” Krislov said, adding that the meeting allowed him to concentrate on issues of concern for both private and public institutions. “I think it’s beneficial for everyone.”