Why Public Policy Matters in Student Affairs

Melissa Whatley Grant

January 4, 2019

Public Policy Defined

The definition of public policy isn’t definitive or agreed upon, but there are a few characteristics that one shouldn't dismiss. Overall, public policy determines how societal values are defined and lived out in people’s daily lives. Public policy changes for a myriad of reasons, including the values of the ruling political party at any given time. Although public policy is inherently designed to solve problems, differing contexts make public policy a complicated landscape to navigate (Kraft & Furlong, 2013). Economic impacts and social impacts often conflict with one another. Add politics and partisanship into this mix, and it is easy to understand why many go about the daily work of helping students and leave the policy-making to someone else.

Public policy isn’t built solely on belief or on faith; it evolves out of an analysis of credible, logical, and objective policy studies. The word “studies” is plural because public policy requires us to access information and think about societal problems from a wide range of valid and reliable sources (Kraft & Furlong, 2013). Public policy isn’t activism, but for many of us, our activism is in response to public policy issues. Activism has a substantial impact on which public policies take priority in a given community.

Higher Education and Student Affairs

Although some might disagree with me, higher education is a public policy issue. Just a few of the laws and policies that govern higher education include: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Higher Education Act of 1965, and all of their amendments and guidance documents. Sometimes the landscape of higher education policy gives me a mental image of the tough mudder race, designed for the most robust athletes, where survival is rooted in teamwork, and the majority of us stand by and watch in awe.

Although public policy can be a complicated space, NASPA and ACPA ask us to go into that space anyway and fortunately for us, they teach us how to do so effectively. One of our professional competencies is Law, Policy, and Governance, as outlined in the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies Rubric (2015).  This document provides us with clear definitions of what it means to demonstrate foundational, intermediate, and advanced policy interpretation and application within higher education.

Through this competency, we can develop into student affairs professionals who know how federal and state policies impact higher education, how to implement policies beyond minimum compliance, and how to advocate for policies that are an embodiment of best practices. Student affairs professionals like us should be (and usually are) able and willing to influence decision-makers, challenge bias, and advocate for equity. Most of the time, we are trying to alter or change policies made by people who don’t agree with us.  Our understanding of how public policy intersects with the lived experiences of college students directly impacts our effectiveness at influencing others.

Increasing Your Public Policy Knowledge

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is an ideal place to start learning more about federal policies that impact higher education. This link will take you to what their website refers to as “current policy guidance issued by the Office for Civil Rights,” but you will also see documents labeled ARCHIVED, these were issued as policy guidance by one administration and rescinded by another.


State-level politics and culture also impact higher education policy. It’s a good idea to learn more about the higher education policy agency in your state, what they do, and what they don’t do.  This link will take you the U.S. Department of Education’s state contacts page where you can begin to find out more about the higher education agency in your state. https://www2.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html?src=ov

Almost every national organization does policy and advocacy work centered around issues specific to higher education. Let these links below serve as a brief introduction to public policy issues that are important to student affairs practitioners and scholars. Please know that this list isn’t even a little bit exhaustive:

When you dive into higher education public policy, it’s likely that you’ll end up with more questions than answers. You’ll start to notice who’s an influencer and who’s a report maker. You’ll start to receive information through a more critical lens, and in turn, your policy narrative will resonate with informed language. You'll be able to advocate to decision-makers for equitable and just public policies, no matter where you currently sit within the organizational chart.


American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2015). ACPA/ NASPA professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners (2nd ed.). Washington, DC.

Kraft, M.E. & Furlong, S.R. (2013). Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives (4th ed). SAGE: Thousand Oaks, CA.

McBeth, M. K., Jones, M. D., & Shanahan, E. A. (2014). The narrative policy framework. Theories of the policy process3, 225-266.

Bio: Melissa Whatley Grant has been a student affairs practitioner in post-secondary and higher education for over ten years. Her leadership experience includes student services, advising, counseling, and career services. Melissa is currently a full-time doctoral student studying Higher Education Administration in the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies program at The University of Tennesse, Knoxville. Her research interests include higher education policy with an emphasis on micro-analysis, professional competencies in student development, and women’s issues in higher education. She currently serves the Women in Student Affairs (WISA) knowledge community as their Public Policy Co-Chair. You can connect with Melissa at www.linkedin.com/in/melissawhatleygrant.

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