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Advocacy and Action


Strengthening Our Collective Voices

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO

If you are looking for “Federal File,” the department that has been Business Officer’s way of covering the news on Capitol Hill, you are now reading a renamed and redesigned version of that monthly article. The updated format and revised design are due, in part, to the increased need for higher education administrators—including business officers—to be a part of the conversation on Capitol Hill on proposed policies that hold ever-increasing consequences for colleges and universities and their stakeholders.

That realization by the NACUBO board and staff has also led to the identification of advocacy as one of the five priorities in the association’s strategic blueprint, which was approved last summer and is well underway. One of the ways to increase our advocacy efforts is to use “Advocacy and Action” to highlight legislation with implications for higher education—and include a call to action (“Add Your Voice”), with specifics about ways to reach your particular legislators and weigh in on impactful issues.

We’ll be using several formats for the department, depending on the hot-button issues of a particular month: a president’s message, such as this one; a case study highlighting a college or university that has developed effective efforts relating to the institution’s legislative challenges; and, sometimes, an article similar to “Federal File,” in which NACUBO’s federal affairs staff provide an update of what’s happening on Capitol Hill.

Deeply Significant Debate

An excellent example of the proactive advocacy work is the targeted activity around the tax reform bill, the progress of which you have undoubtedly been following with keen interest. What you may not have noticed were several tools that NACUBO quickly put in place to make it easier for you to understand the elements of the bill of most concern for higher education stakeholders—and streamlined methods for contacting your legislators with comments.

Rather like the pop-up markets and stores that are put together on a seasonal or as-needed basis, these legislative tools came about as several higher education organizations monitored the elements of the tax bill that would create the most impact on our colleges and universities, students, and families. As tax reform legislation emerged, a number of provisions were concerning, given their impacts on student and family education tax benefits, workforce benefits, charitable giving, tax-exempt bond financing, and tax-exempt organizations.

When Congress moved swiftly forward with tax reform legislation, NACUBO developed a resource page that breaks down key provisions of the Senate and House bills, explains the effect on higher education, shares stories from member institutions about how the proposed cuts might affect their students, and provided ways for individual members to contact their legislators in Congress.

To make reaching your senators and representatives an easy and seamless process, the American Council on Education, in coordination with NACUBO and other higher education associations, developed a “Contact Congress” template that allowed you to send an e-mail to your senators and representatives regarding the tax cuts. A message—that individuals could tailor specifically to their institutions—was preloaded into the template. Members needed only to add a few personal details, to include, name, e-mail, mailing address, and ZIP code.

NACUBO also launched its own tools, enabling individuals to contact lawmakers through social media (Twitter and Facebook) or e-mail, simply by engaging a new tool through text messaging. Recognizing that business officers are uniquely positioned to mobilize voices on campus, NACUBO encouraged its members to work together with alumni, development, and public affairs staff to reach interested constituents and ask them to act by sharing this portal. The tool focused on two goals: first, asking lawmakers to fix the provisions that create new taxes that would raise operating costs or hurt the ability of nonprofits—including colleges and universities—and second, asking supporters to reject the House plans to:

  • Tax employer-provided tuition benefits by eliminating Sections 117(d) and 127.
  • Tax tuition benefits for graduate student teaching and research.
  • Eliminate the Student Loan Interest Deduction.
  • Eliminate the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Advocates using this NACUBO tool sent nearly 2,800 messages to their elected officials using e-mail, Twitter and Facebook; social medial postings are significant, as some were viewed thousands of times, amplifying our efforts.

For individuals who are active on social media, the NACUBO webpage also lists several hashtags that you can use to engage and elevate the conversation.

Finally, the resource page includes a link to Tax Reform: A Call to Action for Colleges and Universities. A NACUBO-developed guide, it includes background information and talking points on issues of NACUBO’s top concern, such as charitable giving, endowments, tax-exempt bond financing, and other issues.

To access these resources, visit www.nacubo.org, click on “Initiatives,” and then “Tax Reform.”

Combined Efforts, Results

This kind of rapid, collaborative, and targeted advocacy effort exemplifies some of the organizational outcomes outlined in NACUBO’s strategic plan: “to increase proactive advocacy.” Success will be measured in the following ways:

  • NACUBO has increased outreach to policy makers on Capitol Hill and in the administration to enhance their understanding of higher education business and finance.
  • NACUBO has increased public policy education and advocacy training (e.g. advocacy updates, grassroots, and public affairs training).
  • NACUBO has used various content delivery mechanisms to communicate its advocacy agenda.
  • Member institutions and their representatives are increasingly involved in NACUBO’s advocacy.
  • NACUBO’s member institution representatives have an increased understanding and awareness of advocacy issues critical to higher education.

With regard to the outreach surrounding the tax bill, the collective efforts of NACUBO, our members, and other higher education organizations resulted in several revisions that favor colleges and universities—and students and parents. NACUBO was most pleased that conferees recognized the importance of employer-provided education benefits and did not eliminate Sections 117(d) and 127, nor did they eliminate the Lifetime Learning Credit or the Student Loan Interest Deduction.

At press time, Congress, unfortunately, included new provisions that will tax or constrain revenues previously used to support colleges and universities, and the students and communities they serve. The tax bill includes:

  • A new excise tax on college and university endowments, which means there will be fewer dollars available for scholarships, student services, research, and college and university operating expenses—raising costs for affected institutions and working against affordability.
  • A provision that doubles the standard deduction without creating another charitable giving incentive and will likely slow the giving that supplements resources for colleges and universities—and all nonprofit organizations.
  •  Changes to the taxation of unrelated business income, including a new tax standard for nonprofit entities that is not faced by the corporate sector.

However, in addition to forgoing the provisions that would have eliminated certain education benefits, the bill included a number of other significant improvements.  These changes would not have been possible without collaboration between NACUBO’s federal affairs team and our membership—engaged business officers, their presidents, and their campus government and public affairs teams. Working together, we effectively communicated to lawmakers the potential downsides of certain proposals that were either eliminated from the final bill or improved from their first iteration.

The tax bill efforts exemplify the extreme importance of our working together to continue to improve access, affordability, and completion at our colleges and universities. As other countries expand their own higher education systems, we cannot afford to fall behind in preparing students for an evolving and competitive global workplace.

As Matt Hamill, senior vice president, advocacy, research, and communications, explains: “I believe that this tax reform effort will be, by far, the single largest and most consequential policy debate that NACUBO will engage in during our time here on the association staff. Every victory we achieve will be the collective result of all our efforts, staff and members alike. Thank you all for everything you are doing to help us make the best case we can for our entire community.”

Of course, we don’t know what other challenges will come our way as Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, with its broad implications. Nonetheless, NACUBO will continue to keep you informed and to provide guidance and tools that allow us to come together and, with a firm and coordinated voice, support higher education’s priorities and promise.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO