By James R. Fowler, Jr.
Vice President for Enrollment Management, Salve Regina University (RI)
Chair, Government Relations Committee
“As a citizen, you need to know how to be a part of it, how to express yourself - and not just by voting.” Sandra Day O'Connor
One of my favorite events of the academic year is the NACAC Annual Advocacy Meeting in Washington, D.C. Why? Because I believe strongly in the concept of engaged citizenship; that it is our responsibility to not just be aware of the challenges that we face as a society, but to do something about it.
As a counseling community, NACAC members are personally invested in working for a better world through advocacy for the students we serve on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is not enough. The values that we as a profession hold dear do not always receive the attention that they require, and if we do not voice them, who will?
NACAC and the American School Counselor Association recommend a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1. The national average is 482:1. In some states, the ratio is significantly worse. At the meeting, NACAC research associate, Pooja Patel, illustrated how this disparity between recommended and actual staffing affects students.
Consider that approximately 21 percent of a public school counselor’s time is spent on postsecondary education counseling. Now consider the effect that high counselor loads have on the ability to provide quality postsecondary counseling and then realize that the populations of students most impacted are underrepresented and/or socio-economically disadvantaged. If we believe as a society that education is a path to prosperity, then our lack of investment in school counselors has a profound impact on the delivery of the American dream.
Stephanie Giesecke from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities provided additional context to these concerns. She noted that federal spending on higher education represents just 2 cents of every dollar in the federal budget. In my job, we often speak of the budget as reflecting the organization’s values. What then does federal spending on education say about our values as a nation? What is our role in that discussion?
A number of other speakers shared similarly striking examples of challenges to higher education. Rachel Banks, director of public policy for NAFSA, and Nicole Svajlenka, senior policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, illustrated how current policies and rhetoric related to immigration are impacting international student enrollment in the US. Education of international students is our 6th largest export -- bigger than soybeans! -- but declines in international student enrollment at US institutions over the last two years are costing the US economy as much as 6 billion dollars each year, aside from the impact they are having in depriving domestic students exposure to internationalization in the classroom. We also continue to be concerned for undocumented students formerly protected under DACA, students who are in the US through no choice of their own and call America home, enriching our communities and educational institutions.
Lest all of this lead you to a bout of depression and a desire to reach for your favorite cocktail, I would be remiss if I didn’t also share some of the good. We were fortunate to hear from Virginia House of Delegates member Alfonso Lopez. Delegate Lopez shared his personal story as the son of a school counselor and of an immigrant. While his remarks were off the record, I believe it is safe to share his enthusiasm for the political process; that, if done well, the legislative process leads to compromise and good legislation that makes people’s lives better, particularly at the local level.
While a trip to D.C. certainly focuses us on federal issues, including Higher Ed Reauthorization Act and investment in financial aid, some of the most impactful policy affecting education is happening at the local level. We need to remember to stay engaged there as well. As NACAC members, we are fortunate to be represented by a highly engaged Government Relations Committee and by NACAC staff who work on our behalf, including Mike Rose, David Hawkins, and Julie Kirk.
Advocacy weekend culminates in visits to Capitol Hill to meet with our representatives in Washington. Nearly 150 NACAC members participated this year representing 42 states. I know from experience how daunting visiting Congress for the first time can seem. At the end of the day, however, you realize that our representatives work for us, and that we, as NACAC members, are the experts on the issues related to school and college counseling.
Legislative staffs are eager to hear our voices and our views, and what we share can impact policy. My meetings were incredibly productive and helped to advance developing relationships that will serve NACAC’s interests now and in the future. As counselors and admission professionals, we live in a world of relationships, so this should be second nature to us.
The great lesson I left this year’s gathering with is that our advocacy cannot be a once a year occurrence. We must capitalize on the relationships we have fostered, and communicate with our representatives regularly, both local and federal. NACAC provides some easy ways to do this through action alerts, but we should strive to share our views even more regularly by passing on our stories, worthwhile articles, and other information that can influence our legislators’ opinions.
NACAC’s strength is the size and dedication of our organization. A single voice may not break through in the din of political rhetoric, but the combined voice of our more than 15,000 members has resonance. The more of us that lend our voices to the conversation, the more powerful our message of inclusion and access becomes. I encourage all of our members to speak up and be heard, and I hope that those who may not have had an opportunity to participate in this outstanding professional development opportunity will do so in the future.
Keep doing what you do best every day. Keep fighting for our students and our important role in helping them achieve their potential.
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