The Public Lens of Policy: A Note from Division Chair Dr. Lawrence P. Ward

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Lawrence P. Ward, Ed.D., Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students Babson College

August 25, 2017

When I was a graduate student preparing for a career in higher education, public policy was not top of the mind. Similarly, in my early years as a student affairs professional, I also failed consciously to connect the dots between my daily practice and public policy. In truth, I spent more than 20 years working in Washington, DC, and rarely thought consciously about the value of public policy as an essential competency in my professional toolkit.

Today, as a chief student affairs officer and current Director of NASPA’s Public Policy Division (PPD), I think regularly and far more strategically about how policy issues in the public domain (beyond individual institutional policies) impact and influence my ability to help students successfully access higher education, make satisfactory academic progress, and ultimately complete a college degree.

The “A Ha” moment for me was a realization that I had been thinking about public policy through the wrong lens. When a conversation in a room of student affairs professionals turns into a detailed discussion of legislative policy, you can just feel the collective energy deflate except for the most ardent policy wonks. However, with the proper lens and an emphasis on the public (defined as students, families, and campus communities), the practical impact and relevant implications of public policy for student affairs professionals can breathe new life back into the room.

Now more than ever, student affairs professionals at all levels of experience need to be thoughtfully engaged in a range of policy issues that have profound implications for who can benefit from higher education. Indeed, there is considerable anxiety on our campuses related to protections for individual identity, international and undocumented students, mental and emotional health, and collective affordability. The White House and Congressional leaders have proposed cuts to a number of federal financial aid programs, including the Perkins Loan, Federal Work-Study, and TRIO, and new challenges to admissions policy and Title IX enforcement.

At the state level, NASPA’s PPD regional leaders have been tracking and assessing the impact of a number of legislative proposals and developments that could significantly and adversely impact the student experience on campus. These issues include bathroom and anti-transgender bills, freedom of expression/speech and intellectual diversity, guns on campus, and prohibitions against sanctuary campuses and cities. The current political environment and the changing directions in public policy create very real and difficult challenges to many of the fundamental mandates that student affairs professionals are charged with addressing on campus (e.g. student access, inclusion, safety, and wellness). As such, the connection between public policy and the ability of student affairs professionals to advocate successfully on behalf of our students has not been more relevant or urgent.

To that end, NASPA’s Board of Directors recently adopted an updated public policy agenda grounded in a commitment to ensuring opportunity for all institutional members’ students and a belief that higher education remains a great benefit to both individuals and society. Specifically, NASPA encourages members to engage in the following public policy issue areas:

  • Student Success and Completion -- Recognizing that access is only the first of many necessary steps to success, NASPA supports public and institutional policies that create or continue ongoing student support and credential completion, especially those that close equity gaps between historically under-represented and majority groups.
  • Student Safety and Wellness -- NASPA plays an important role in helping student affairs professionals to navigate compliance with related legislation, regulations, and governmental guidance and advocate on issues ranging from mental health, sexual assault prevention and response, financial stability and literacy, and civic engagement.
  • Cost of Higher Education, Student Debt, and Borrower Protections -- NASPA is committed to influencing policies that address college affordability, increase access and availability of financial aid, and decrease student indebtedness, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds that have had fewer resources to support college preparation and access.
  • Inclusive Opportunities for Access and Success in Higher Education -- NASPA is committed to fostering increasingly more diverse and inclusive campuses that actively support all students including: domestic students of color; international, immigrant, and undocumented students; LGBTQIA students; and students on nontraditional pathways including adult and formerly incarcerated learners. 
  • Civic Engagement and Freedom of Expression -- NASPA recognizes the central role that student affairs professionals play in fostering democratic campuses that bring together and give voice to diverse people, thoughts, opinions, and points of view. NASPA seeks to help campuses develop policies that value student concerns and also protect freedom of speech.

In support of this public policy imperatives, NASPA is keenly motivated to provide timely policy updates and analyses to our membership that are easily accessible and digestible to an increasingly broader audience. For example, members already can access weekly policy updates that cover a variety of topics and issues relevant to student affairs professionals on the Research & Policy Institute (RPI) blog. The weekly updates soon will be available via an opt-in email, so please keep an eye out for more information in NASPA’s Weekly Update. NASPA will continue to identify and offer a variety of creative and impactful formats to communicate public policy “intelligence” that adds value to the daily work of student affairs educators.

More to the point, we are committed as a professional association to developing greater interest and competency among new professional and mid-career members to become effective advocates for the issues that matter in the lives and experiences of our students, particularly the most vulnerable. Ultimately, engagement in public policy issues is not an isolated intellectual exercise but rather integral to our collective responsibility to help ensure students’ safety, well-being, and success in college and beyond.

Lawrence P. Ward, Ed.D.
Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students
Babson College

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