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How to Conduct a Legislative Visit and Why You Need to do it Now

How to Conduct a Legislative Visit and Why You Need to do it Now


Written by Barbara A. Schmitz from an interview by Jenny Faubert with Tom Netting, Executive Director, Central States Private Education Network

“Do it!” Arnold Schwarzenegger screams in “Predator.” “Come on … Do it now!”

While Tom Netting isn’t screaming, he is certainly recommending, and in fact, highly encouraging all schools to conduct legislative visits yet this summer and thus, change the fate of hundreds of schools in 2017.

Netting, co-executive director of the Central States Private Education Network, or CSPEN, among his multiple titles, says there are two opportunities left to make changes to or to replace or repeal the gainful employment regulation before the anticipated publication of the first gainful employment debt-to-earnings metrics in early 2017.

The first is the Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations process and the annual Labor, Health and Human Services Education and Related Agencies legislation.

“House Speaker (Paul) Ryan’s strategy is to introduce and complete enactment of all 12 appropriations bills for each of the main functions of government separately, providing Congress with the opportunity to negotiate each of them on their own merits, which could be good news for us” Netting says.

“If the Labor, HHS, Education, and Related Agencies bills marked-up last year had not once again fallen prey to delays and the eventual development of an Omnibus bill, the normal process would have dictated that negotiations over inclusion of a gainful employment provision would have been limited to which of the two versions to adopt in the final bill and the President potentially having to explain to the nation why he would hold up the entire bill for this provision,” says Netting.

One change in the timeline for implementation of gainful employment, if implemented, could literally change the fate of hundreds of schools in 2017, he said. “That’s why we all need to be focused on supporting the rider being developed right now by House and Senate authorizers and appropriators and to unify the entire sector behind support for it for the remainder of 2016.”

“The key this time, if at all possible, will be to have the same language in both the House and Senate bills, support the efforts to complete the enactment of the individual bills, and stress the urgency that unlike in years past, if action is not taken this year, there will be dire consequences.”

Netting says that various research suggests that gainful employment has the potential to deny access for almost 1 million “at risk” students annually to career programs of their choice, or almost 3.5 million students this decade. That includes more than 200,000 veterans, 600,000 African-American and 600,000 Hispanics, as well as more than 1.8 million Pell recipients.

“This is the opposite of the stated goal of increasing access and opportunity to postsecondary education,” he says, noting that CSPEN estimates gainful employment could force a significant number – possibly 1,000 or more – quality programs and institutions to close, all while wreaking economic havoc in their communities. Their estimate is based somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of schools closing because of the loss of programs due to the artificially low gainful employment debt-to-earnings calculations, which includes those with zero earnings that could be due to personal choice years after leaving their schools.

Secondly, legislators need to be aware of the potentially harmful results of the gainful employment regulation as the pending Higher Education Act reauthorization progress continues to move forward, he adds. “The Education Committee leaders have made it clear that they will not complete reauthorization this year, but are going to attempt to develop and enact a package of regulatory reform proposals this year.” The Senate is focused upon constructing a bipartisan proposal which builds upon the recommendations contained in the Report of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education: Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities, while the House is more open and willing to a broader group of regulatory revisions.

Netting asserts that while focused on the urgent need for a short-term delay in appropriations is the priority, our broader goal in reauthorization, beginning with the regulatory reform bill, is to continue to impress upon Members of Congress the fact that, implementation of the gainful employment regulations is especially going to harm constituents in a market that is depending on career schools to help change their lives and move them from generations of entitlement to productive, taxpaying citizens with higher levels of self-esteem, accomplishments and opportunities for themselves and for their children to follow their example.”

There are six or seven components of gainful employment that unfairly define quality in for-profit schools, according to CSPEN. The situation is worsened by many factors that are simply out of control of the schools.

For example, many of their students are women of childbearing age, and if they decide to have a child and stay at home to care for their infants for a period of time, it harms the schools’ quality ratings. “If they decide to stay at home in the year that (the government) is measuring, they show up as a zero for salary,” Netting explains. “That counts against the school.”

Or if somebody needs to care for a sick child or parent and must take off work for the short- or long-term, their reduced or non-existent income is averaged into the salary measurement, which again counts against the quality of our schools, he adds. “That’s just a couple of examples, but there are several things that are explicit and blatant in the level of unfairness and lack of control,” Netting says. “They have no relation to the quality of education a student receives, nor the opportunity that has been granted. We don’t mind being measured, but measure us and do it fairly. That’s the message we need to get to legislators.”

Netting, however, also has a message for the sector, particularly those who feel nothing can be done about the gainful employment regulation: Don’t rely on somebody else to tell your story.

“I know all college owners are busy running their colleges, working very hard to service their students, and that they are very, very proud of their institutions and the life-changing experiences they witness occurring every day” he says. “But we’re losing the public relations war in no small part because we are not making it our daily, weekly, and monthly responsibility to tell our story.”

The news media runs stories about bad schools or schools closing, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of career schools are good, quality schools with good owners and good outcomes, Netting says.

“Even at schools with some challenges, a lot of students have had an opportunity to change their lives – why aren’t schools regularly and routinely sharing this information with their elected officials?”

“The process of sharing the latest good news about your institution with your elected officials must become as endemic, and not episodic, as any other required task of the school leaders – now through the foreseeable future!”

At the 2015 Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities conference, Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Congressman and Republican presidential candidate, acknowledged that career schools don’t have enough money to battle the public relations coverage that the bad schools are getting. He said something to the effect of: The only people you really need to worry about influencing are the legislators who are going to help you either modify rules or write laws when the Higher Education Act becomes reauthorized.

The way to influence your legislators is to get them inside your school and teach them what you do, Netting says. “They’ll come because you are one of their constituents,” he says. “We need to educate our legislators in our individual markets at the grassroots level. They are the only ones who can make changes that are going to help this sector survive.”

It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be a grassroots initiative. “It’s as simple as calling your legislators and asking them to come in and meet with you, your staff, your students and your employers, and educating them on what you do,” Netting says. You’ll want to inform your representatives how you change the lives of their constituents, how you train your students for in-demand employable skills, how local businesses depend on your skilled graduates to fill their jobs, and how your graduates go from tax consumers to taxpayers. “The result will be that legislators leave the meeting understanding the impact your school has on your students and the community, and how much the local community depends on you,” he says. “Seek their help in a unified message of making even the smallest change this year that can have the biggest impact on schools in 2017.”

But how do you schedule and conduct a visit? Or how do you even identify which legislators to ask to visit your school? Netting recommends the following steps for a legislative visit:

Identifying your legislators

“That’s easy,” Netting says. “Remember, your legislators care for their communities and they want to hear from you.” For your members of Congress who are in the House of Representatives, visit http://www.house.gov and enter ZIP codes for your school locations. For your senators, visit http://www.senate.gov and enter your state. Netting also recommends you invite your state legislators, particularly those on the state education committee, in case they seek federal office some day. “If you make relationships with them now and they understand the value you bring to the community, then when they move into the federal legislature, they’ll be an advocate for what you do.”

Calling to schedule a visit

Once you have identified your legislators, call their offices to schedule a visit. Ask to speak first with the education liaison and then with the scheduler. You’ll need to summarize quickly to get their attention. For example, “We are a very important part of our local community with more than 200 graduates each year who are employed by over 50 area employers; those graduates and employers want to tell their story to the Representative or Senator.”

As a follow-up to your call, prepare an email that outlines the next steps in your interactions. The email should cover the issue you want to make them aware of (such as gainful employment and its negative impact on their constituents), provide background information on the issue, include a suggested agenda and offer six or eight possible dates for the visit, preferably when you have class in session.

“Flexibility and relentless follow-up are the most significant requirements for your staff organizer,” Netting says. “They’ll need to follow up with staffers – most likely the scheduler – constantly by phone and email.” You’ll also need to send reminders to your community attendees including any CEOs from area employers, agency partners, or others.

“Be prepared for any selected date to change,” Netting says, “and inform those who commit to attend that changes are possible.”

You also need to be prepared to repeat details to multiple staffers who may be intermittently engaged as you proceed. Always use your prepared email and any detailed attachments, Netting suggests.

Netting says a legislative visit is similar to an open house because it requires someone to schedule resources within the college to show off its best features. “It requires coordination of external resources. It requires marketing the event and creating awareness,” he says. “It requires setting up activities in classrooms to demonstrate the kind of activities, programs and lessons that students learn and the skills they develop in classes.”

For example, a school might run a pharmaceutical symposium or make sure students are working on simulators and conducting tests and taking measurements in the heating, ventilating and air conditioning lab, he says.

It’s similar to doing a recruiting event, but instead you’ll need to focus your message on the legislator or legislators. “You’re going to have employers there, and the employers are going to have a chance to tell their legislators why your school is important. That’s the nuanced difference between having employers at a job fair or another college event. Employers are interested in coming and they want to meet with their legislators because they do have concerns about a skilled and qualified workforce. They do have concerns about the type of student we’re training and the type of positions we’re filling. They’re looking for people who have soft skills like being able to maneuver a business environment, who know how to conduct themselves, who show up for work and who show up for work on time. These are all the things our schools teach students. Many come in without an understanding about the importance of these soft skills, nor the impact it can have on their future.”

Creating an agenda

The next step is to create an agenda, which will keep you on task and on schedule. “Your agenda will guide your preparation,” Netting says. “It should include the community impact of your college, CEO (or employer) roundtable, a campus tour, representative address to students, media interviews, conclusion and takeaways – the ask.”

You also need to be keenly aware of time. “Understand and plan carefully the timetable for the entire meeting,” he says. “Recognize that the legislators may be late but may have to leave on time. Be prepared to adjust accordingly.”

Netting recommends you keep the meeting to less than one hour — 23 minutes for the opening presentation and CEO roundtable, 12 minutes for a campus tour, 15 minutes for the student address, and five minutes for media interviews.

Discussing community impact

Netting says colleges should inform legislators how they change the lives of those in the community. “You want to help them understand that we train students better than anybody,” he says. “Everybody has to measure outcomes at all the colleges across the country and our outcomes are better than any other sector. We train for in-demand employable skills. We showcase our performance. We want them to understand that we do it better than anybody and we can demonstrate our achievements and our metrics, including graduation rates and placement rates.

“We like to demonstrate and help them understand what the business impacts are in their communities,” Netting says. “CEOs tell us that they need the skilled employees we provide. We want them to understand our overall impact on the community and that is we often move students from generations of entitlement and being tax consumers to taxpayers.”

But you should also tell your legislators about the many ways your schools impact the communities they serve, he says. That impact could be through volunteering or helping people who are less fortunate, holding health-based events at the school such as free blood pressure and blood checks, and more.

Netting recommends schools use a PowerPoint presentation that highlights the areas that need to be addressed. You should discuss the number of constituents served, staff employed, and employer partnerships, as well as outcome measurements like retention, graduation rates or placement rates.

You should also talk about your metrics, and the effort you make to ensure that every single person who wants to work gets a job. “If you talk about your job placement rate, it’s easy to say between 73 percent and 86 percent of your graduates find jobs, depending on the program. But people don’t understand how amazing that is,” Netting says.

“This is your chance to tell your story with passion and in your own words,” he stresses.

“For your last slide you should discuss the reason you want their support – that gainful employment is a harmful regulation that disproportionately impacts the very underserved students who need it most.”

You want their support to change the rule this year or repeal it during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the next one to two years. You should reiterate that you want your school to be measured, but that the Department of Education should measure it fairly. You can also give your legislators a handout for later review that summarizes your main points.

Conducting the CEO roundtable

Be sure to invite local business owners or CEOs who hire your graduates to the meeting. Place them around a table with the legislators and talk about issues that are important to both.

Ask the CEOs what are their greatest concerns in hiring. What are the top three hiring challenges they have? Or what are the most important hiring traits they seek? “Those questions are related, but different,” Netting says. “Employers are more than happy to tell the legislators how hard it is to find somebody to fill the middle skills jobs, and when they do, the applicants are woefully unprepared in social and soft skills.”

Planning a campus tour

For the campus tour, have faculty conduct “hands-on” activities in every classroom, Netting suggests. Host a student symposium to show off projects. Take the group into any labs you have and be sure students are working on tangible projects that have the most impact on visitors.

After the tour is a great time for the legislator to meet one-on-one with students. Netting suggests you ask the legislator if there is a maximum group size he or she wants to meet with. “You want your legislator to know the ‘stories’ of your students. You could prepare in advance with a school-wide class writing assignment. In letters, students can thank their legislator for supporting federal aid so they can attend schools like yours, or tell the reason they chose your school and the impact it has had or they expect it to have on their lives. These letters can be presented to the legislator at the beginning of this meeting. Also carefully select your students for maturity and professionalism to minimize disruption and to effectively manage time; you can even pre-select a student or students and the particular question they want to ask.”

It’s also a good idea to ask successful alumni to meet with the legislators. If other commitments prevent alumni from meeting with the lawmakers, however, Netting suggests schools write up their success stories and then incorporate those into their handouts.

“Many success stories talk about how someone was a single mom without a car on every type of assistance possible and just struggling to put food on the table,” he says. “But after graduating they found a career with regular working hours that allowed them to get their lives back. That’s impactful.”

Handling PR regarding the visit

Generally, the legislator’s staff will handle publicity when a politician visits businesses or schools within his or her district. But it’s always a good idea to ask in advance if they have any publicity planned, and if not, as a matter of mutual respect and professionalism, ask if they are OK with you submitting a press release about the visit, Netting says. “But usually the federal legislator’s staff has done their own public relations and they have arranged for TV stations and newspapers to come.”

Ending the visit

The visit generally ends with “the ask,” or asking legislators for specific support and action to get a regulation such as gainful employment changed, Netting says. But to get those changes passed, Netting says all for-profit schools nationwide need to ask for one consistent change in the regulations for 2016 – a change that will become more clear once the determination on the final FY17 Appropriation rider language has been agreed upon. Tom has worked with all of his clients on the development of a toolkit to help schools keep consistent in that “ask.”

You can request the free toolkit by emailing Tom directly at Tom.Netting@Akerman.com.

After the visit, legislators should understand that gainful employment is a threat not only to their constituents, but also to what your college means to the local community and its economy, he says. “Once the private colleges are gone, there aren’t going to be a lot of effective options for these students to choose from. Community colleges are already overburdened. They don’t have the funding and they can’t handle the loads they have now.”

Netting says he doesn’t have false delusions that they will be able to repeal the entire gainful employment law in 2016, although he still urges all institutions to continue to support H.R. 970 – The Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Reform Act (legislation proposing to repeal not only gainful employment, but also the state authorization and clock-to-credit hour regulations promulgated in 2010). “But I do feel that the urgency associated with the pending implementation of the gainful employment regulations later in the fall and early 2017 will help focus Congress on the need for action this year and that the proposal that comes out of the Appropriations process has a better chance for success this year than our failed efforts in the past two appropriations cycles.”

Following up after the visit

Continuing to communicate with your legislators’ staffers after the visit is important if you are to develop relationships and ensure change. “They tend to forget,” Netting says, “so you need to have ongoing relationships. Ask the legislators to be commencement speakers at your graduation ceremonies. Visit them in Washington, but only if you have a good reason.”

No matter how you do it, keep communicating, he stresses. “Give them information to continue to support you and keep gainful employment first and foremost on their minds.”

Tom Netting

Tom Netting has more than 26 years of experience working in government relations and public policy on matters involving higher education and workforce development, elementary and secondary education, healthcare, veterans affairs and the procurement of federal appropriations. Tom represents a national for-profit trade association, multi-state state association, national post-secondary allied-health coalition, individual for-profit institutions of higher education, and several post-secondary education companies who support the higher education community and students.

Contact Information: Tom E. Netting // Public Policy Advisory // Akerman LLP // The Victor Building, 750 Ninth Street, N.W. Suite 750 Washington, D.C. 20001 // 202-393-6222 // tom.netting@akerman.com



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