Introducing Public Policy to Student Affairs Professionals, Part I of III

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Stacy Heldman-Holguin

April 12, 2017

Day in and day out, the news blares the words executive order, legislation, assault on campus, open carry, transgender, FLSA, undocumented, and injunction in reference to decisions that impact higher education. While many of us remember bits and pieces from our high school civics class or at least the occasional Schoolhouse Rock video from afternoon television, much of the verbiage scrolling across our screens or entertaining us through Facebook memes is lost in the onslaught of information and rapidly changing news topics. If you are having conversations about any of the topics above, however, you are engaging in a discussion of public policy.

In this three-part series, you’ll learn more about what comprises public policy, why student affairs professionals should pay attention to policy issues and conversations, and how to get informed and become involved in policy conversations relevant to your field. New posts in the series will be provided on Wednesday of the next two weeks, so be sure to check back throughout the month!

What is Public Policy?

Let us take a moment to review traditional definition and attributes of public policy. “Public policy can be generally defined as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives”[1]. The process by which public policy is developed at the local, state, and federal levels, through legislative chambers, boardrooms and courtrooms is not only important to our personal lives but also to our professional roles as student life administrators.

It is also helpful to understand that public policy has a number of key attributes[2]:

  • Policy is made in response to some sort of issue or problem that requires attention.
  • Policy is what the government chooses to do (actual) or not do (implied) about a particular issue or problem.
  • Policy might take the form of law, or regulation, or the set of all the laws and regulations that govern a particular issue or problem.
  • Policy is made on behalf of the "public."
  • Policy is oriented toward a goal or desired state, such as the solution of a problem.
  • Policy is ultimately made by governments, even if the ideas come from outside government or through the interaction of government and the public.
  • Policymaking is part of an ongoing process that does not always have a clear beginning or end, since decisions about who will benefit from policies and who will bear any burden resulting from the policy are continually reassessed, revisited and revised.

How does public policy effect campus student affairs professionals?

Senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) are responsible for the implementation or updating of campus policies and programs in response to broader public policy changes. We refer to changes dictated through legislation or legal action as mandates, often as “unfunded” mandates (insert heavy sigh here) because we must complete the response without financial support from the mandating body. Mandate can result from any number of governmental actions including federal or state legislation, in response to an executive order or a legal ruling, or through the requirements of or guidance from federal or state agencies providing funding or completing investigations. As we’ll discuss further in the next post in this series, all of these mandates created questions relevant for the work of SSAOs.

Policy doesn’t just effect senior level student affairs professionals, though. Mid-level student affairs staff can influence the making of public policy, impact implementation at the campus level, support students who are struggling in a highlighted area, and help prepare for potential changes in their field. In short, SSAOs need our staff colleagues to be alert to the current issues in the student population, to provide expertise, and to address future impacts that public policy changes can bring.

Public policy, as noted, is an interactive process and student affairs professionals at all levels, as experts in their given fields, can provide policy makers with key information both about the issue being presented and about the impact of potential mandates to their campus and the education system. Lawmakers are influenced by their constituencies, college campuses and their staff members are truly part of those constituency groups. In support of your institutions concerns, you can write, call or email your representatives, support campus lobby days, write an op-ed, hold formal discussions and help educate those around you.

Want to know more about why student affairs professionals should pay attention to policy issues and conversations? Check back here next week for the next installment in this series!

[1] Kilpatrick, D.G. (2000). Definitions of public policy and the law, National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center.

[2] Birkland, T.A. (2011). An Introduction to the Policy Process. M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York

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