Policymaking Toolkit for Tough Times

Faith SandlerAdvocacy and Policy, Awards to Students, Democracy, Education, Impact, Words of Faith

United States silhouette with dark coloring

Right now, policy is being made not by legislation but by incompetence and intimidation. These tactics were not among the principles set forth by the founding mothers of The Scholarship Foundation when they acknowledged that democracy requires an educated community.

Here’s a starting list of current conditions, with specific emphasis on those backdoor policymaking practices that especially affect low-income students and students of color.

  • Technical tools shut down at critical moments, without warning:On March 3, 2017, the IRS data retrieval tool which allows students completing federal financial aid forms to access their own data was suddenly unavailable. It took six days and many calls to members of Congress to get an explanation. The shut-down was intentional, responding to data security concerns. Several weeks and many pleas later, we learned it would not be available again until October. After eight years of nationwide use of the tool and at a critical moment for low-income students, this has caused significant hardship, confusion and frustration. Though no laws were passed to limit the number of students qualifying for federal aid, this technicality likely cost many students the opportunity to attend college.
  • Highly publicized random or punitive acts of enforcement, without explanation: So far, the order that allows Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has not been overturned and the threats to build a wall between the United States and Mexico have not been legislated or budgeted. We have seen increased enforcement, pressure to engage municipal police forces, and highly publicized and seemingly unpredictable raids in which folks are swept up and detained or deported for minor or no offenses. At least 10 individuals provided protection under DACA (young people raised in the U.S. and in school or working) have been detained and at least one deported. Publicity of enforcement and dangerous anti-immigrant language throughout the U.S. has proven effective at frightening families, discouraging civic engagement, and derailing educational plans for many young immigrants.
  • Inviting usury back into student loans: In March, correspondence from the U.S. Department of Education allowed those collecting loans from individuals who have sought loan rehabilitation under the federal loan programs to charge a 16% rate of interest. A “profit over people” approach could not be more evident, especially given the balances and experiences of these borrowers. No bill worked its way through Congress. This policy came quickly through the backdoor.
  • Belt tightening: Follow the money (the appropriations process), at the institutional, state, or federal level, and you will find ample examples of policymaking by clinging to a story of scarcity and selectively cutting the programs most important to low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. With regard to access and affordability (where The Scholarship Foundation does its work), this tactic results in “death by a thousand cuts.”
  • Institute unrestrained climate of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”):Throughout the plans and hiring decisions put forth by the current Secretary of Education, a free market concept of “buyer beware” seems to flourish. The U.S. Department of Education is signaling that we can expect to see loosening of regulations on for-profit colleges, returning us to the days of invisible pricing and out-of-control borrowing for degrees that do not materialize or are not valued by employers. This policy all gets made in the minutiae of regulations, outside the view of the students who will pay dearly for someone else’s profit.

This is mean-spirited, tough stuff to combat.  Yet we must.  So here’s a toolkit to get you started:

  1. COMPLAIN. If you are affected or know people who are, then call the staff of your elected representatives with specific examples.  Contact media. Consider filing with the Consumer Finance Protection Board (under threat but still in existence) which reports a 373% spike in student loan complaints in Missouri in the last year (323% nationally).
  2. SPREAD THE WORD.  Use social media and any other platform to share information about threats to low-income students.  Offer alerts and “work arounds.” Outflank or hurdle every procedural barrier. Ask The Scholarship Foundation to help if it concerns FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or unclear financial aid offers from colleges.
  3. WATCH TRUSTWORTHY SOURCES FOR ACTION ALERTS. National organizations headquartered in Washington are the best way to learn what’s hot, what’s in need of more heat, and to whom you can direct your input. Though not openly legislating these dangerous shifts, your elected representatives still have influence and a responsibility to hear you. Keep speaking out, even if you think they are failing to listen. They can hold administrative and executive branches responsible for making policy the old-fashioned way, through legislative process and not through the back door.
  4. GIVE MONEY WHERE IT WILL BE SPENT DIRECTLY ON WHAT MATTERS.  Students need support and they need it now. The Scholarship Foundation can assure that funds you give will not only reach students, but will be accompanied by wise counsel and careful attention to the pitfalls of the current climate. Students first.

Of course, such action and such possibility depend upon relationships and upon hope. Carry those with you at all times.

– Faith Sandler