Those Self-Defeating Lobbyists at One Dupont Circle

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 03, 2013

If you read the news or watch television, you know that Washington is infested with lobbyists. On K Street and many other streets in this town, people with smart suits and firm handshakes are being paid generous salaries to shake down the government for money. Lobbyists are held in low public regard, and for good reason. Lobbying isn't the world's oldest profession, but it's close.

What you might not know, if you work for a college or university, is that you, too, have lobbyists. In their current incarnation, they may be doing you more harm than good.

The higher-education lobby is located at One Dupont Circle, in Northwest D.C., and that's how people here talk about it: One Dupont says this, One Dupont says that. Like 10 Downing Street or the Kremlin. The building itself houses dozens of organizations representing public colleges, private colleges, land-grants, community colleges, registrars, accreditors, and so on. They're led by the American Council on Education, which technically represents everyone but protects the interests of wealthy and powerful institutions most of all.

Recently One Dupont published a list of demands and priorities for the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which controls most of what matters in federal higher-education policy. The list reveals that the needs of the nation and the sentiments of Congress don't line up with the priorities of a higher-education lobby stuck in an earlier age.

The Higher Education Act contains many federal programs. One Dupont recommends increased funds for pretty much all of them. I support federal spending in general and higher education in particular, but a refusal to set priorities in times of constricted spending amounts to an abdication.

In reading the document, it helps to understand lobbyist code. The list is organized into subsections with titles like "Better Information for Consumers," "Supporting Persistence and Completion," and "College Affordability and Cost Reduction." These reflect common grievances about colleges: that it's damnably hard to choose among them, that a lot of their students don't graduate, and that they get more expensive every year.

Each subsection begins with a forthright declaration of support for the goal in question, followed by a string of caveats, qualifiers, and generalities. When you read, "We strongly support this goal in the abstract, BUT," it really means, "We wish you would stop complaining about this, BECAUSE."

The document refers at various points to the "appropriate" role of the federal government in regulating higher education. Substitute "minimal" or "essentially toothless" and the true meaning will become clear. That's because the higher-education lobby views Uncle Sam as a wealthy, doddering old relative who must be periodically flattered in order to keep up the trust fund, with all the expected dynamics of dependency and resentment.

Some parts are laughable. In the section about how college completion is important but colleges can't be expected to improve it, we are told that "the substantial role that students themselves play in meeting their academic goals cannot be underestimated." I'm pretty sure it can—and is, routinely, at colleges that graduate many fewer students than peer institutions with similar academic profiles and missions.

When it comes to giving consumers more information, the lobbyists complain, "a point seems to have been reached where information for information's sake has become the goal." That is a strange objection coming from people who are in the business of basic research. No less than Cardinal John Henry Newman said, in his idea of the university, that "knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake."

A strong sense of indignation about requirements to publicly disclose information runs throughout. The lobbyists gamely pretend they really have the interests of students in mind: "The cost of collecting and maintaining this information is enormous and, as has been widely acknowledged, these compliance costs are passed on to students in the form of increased tuition."

There are many falsehoods packed into that sentence. Enormous compared with what? Certainly not the $150-billion in federal grants and loans that are annually transferred from the public treasury into college and university coffers. Widely acknowledged by whom? Nobody other than colleges, which would rather not disclose information that might expose their inadequacies.

We are also told, "Excessive regulatory burden is a key driver of college costs," resulting in raised tuition. Again, nonsense. Wholly without foundation. Untrue. The Government Accountability Office recently asked a sample of colleges how many hours they spend complying with the Ipeds higher-education-data system, which the lobbyists describe as "exceptionally complex." The colleges' answers ranged from 40 hours to nearly 600, with a median of 130. Multiplied by the U.S. Department of Education's estimate of $30 per hour in staff and computer costs, that comes to ... $3,900 per year for the typical institution. Colleges spend more money than that polishing the doorknobs in the presidential suite.

In the real world, prices are driven up by market failures. One of the biggest is lack of information to inform consumer choice. The regulation = higher tuition gambit is what the late Albert O. Hirschman described as the "perversity thesis"—the standard reactionary claim that trying to improve something will actually make it worse.

All of this is badly out of step with the mood on Capitol Hill. Concerns about college prices have grown so acute that Democrats and Republicans actually came together this summer to pass a bill, which the president signed into law, to lower student-loan interest rates. This, in the most acrimonious and partisan political atmosphere in living memory. There are people in Congress who would denounce apple pie as Shariah socialism if President Obama supported it—and yet they put aside their differences to make college a little less expensive.

One Dupont Circle is exhibiting the lobbyist's fatal weakness: subjugating strategy to tactics. In the short term, the smart move is to stake out a maximalist bargaining position and compromise far away from your actual bottom line. That's why the National Rifle Association wants to arm kindergarten teachers with assault rifles and the cigarette industry spent years insisting that the whole lung-cancer thing was a ruse.

This can work for a while, and it worked the last time Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act. But in the long run, it leaves you vulnerable to an accumulation of outrage that can be satisfied only by dramatic change. Sometimes it's not even in your own interest.

In the 1960s, the American Medical Association—the doctors' lobby—opposed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Today America has the best-paid doctors in the world. The pharmaceutical industry fought tooth and nail against giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to preapprove drugs. "FDA approved" became a global standard and made untold billions for Big Pharma. Automobile makers opposed mandatory seat belts and airbags; now they're profitable safety features.

A well-regulated, well-informed higher-education market is in everyone's best interest. Even the lobbyists'.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.