Gandara, D., and S. Jones. 2020. “Who Deserves Benefits in Higher Education? A Policy Discourse Analysis of a Process Surrounding Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.” The Review of Higher Education 44 (1): 121–157.
How do policymakers at the highest levels of government conceive of the purposes of higher education? What logic do they employ to justify their political decisions? How do they understand and represent different groups of stakeholders in higher education? And how does this influence their willingness to distribute benefits and burdens to these groups? This study addresses these questions through a discourse analysis of over 14 hours of deliberation by the U.S. Congress Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding the 2017 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Specifically, the researchers employed the theory of social construction and policy design which “centers the social construction of groups targeted through policy” (p. 125). This form of discourse analysis examines who is given the power to speak, agency over setting definitions, establishing acceptable forms of logic, and asserting “truths” within the discourse that open or close reasonable possibilities for social change. These perspectives were then used to illuminate patterns in how Republicans and Democrats positively or negatively characterized different groups. Furthermore, the researchers traced how the formal political power of each group interacted with this descriptive valence and determined the extent to which policy decisions granted or denied them various advantages.
DISCUSSION OF THE FINDINGS
As the committee was majority-Republican, the proposed reauthorization (known as the PROSPER act) was drafted by Republican committee members and only later presented to the Democratic members of the committee for debate and amendment. This situation allowed Republicans to define the underlying assumptions of the reauthorization act, which focused on the macroeconomic rationale of higher education (workforce preparation) and upon accruing individual monetary benefits to students. This strategy permitted dismissal of amendments that championed other ends of higher education (for example, racial educational equity) by appealing to the “goal of the underlying bill” (p. 133).
Both Republican and Democrat committee members consistently ascribed positive attributes to low-income students, student borrowers, older students and veterans, racial minority students, and high school students. Republicans advocated more frequently for the needs of high school students and older adult students and veterans, while Democrats tended to promote the needs of minority serving institutions, racial minority students, and DREAMers, while frequently voicing concerns about the corporations and for-profit institutions that they frequently characterized as predatory and exploitative.
Several patterns emerged regarding the distribution of benefits and burdens and their attendant rationalizations. Certain groups with positive constructions (for instance, adult students and high school students) that receive benefits through the proposed policy were mentioned often. However, positively-constructed groups that had low political power (such as DREAMers, racial minority students, and low-income students) and were additionally burdened by the proposed policy were not addressed, and amendments challenging these burdens were dismissed.
Finally, it is notable that several communities important to higher education were not mentioned at all during the 14 hours of discussion, including people with learning disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community.
IMPLICATIONS FOR Action by CAMPUS LEADERS
These findings raise the question of how effectively higher education leaders communicate the needs of their constituents to powerful policymakers in the nation. As government bodies become increasingly specialized and as lobbying groups proliferate, it is important that university leaders communicate clearly and use the political leverage necessary to shape national narratives about higher education and who it serves. College leaders should have consistent and powerful messages that reach well beyond their own institutions.
About the Authors
Denisa Gandara is an assistant professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University.
Sosanya Jones is an assistant professor of leadership and policy studies at Howard University.
Literature Readers May Wish to Consult
Schneider, A., and H. Ingram. 1997. Policy Design for Democracy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Suspitsyna, T. 2012. “Higher Education for Economic Advancement and Engaged Citizenship: An Analysis of the U.S. Department of Education Discourse.” The Journal of Higher Education 83 (1): 49–72.