WASHINGTON _ Every time Pam Parker arrives in Washington, she comes prepared with packets of information, fact sheets and a good spiel.
She needs it.
As federal liaison for Ohio University, Parker relies on information and her ability to spread it to get funding, legislation and tax breaks for the mid-sized, Midwestern campus. And she has to compete for federal dollars against hundreds of other colleges and universities around the country.
“We have an opportunity now for greater visibility for the university,” she said. This visibility, she said, leads to more government action and increased funding for OU projects.
Lobbying is big business for schools these days. Without connections to the federal government, schools can lose out on millions of dollars each year. To get a share, some schools use someone called a “liaison,” like Parker. Others have their own registered lobbyist in Washington full-time. Those on a tighter budget turn to large, umbrella organizations to open federal doors and pursestrings. They can't afford not to.
“As time goes on, more and more college presidents realize the need to lobby Congress,” said Tim McDonough, director of public relations at the American Council on Education. The Council represents more than 1,800 colleges and universities. The three main issues for colleges are student aid, funding for research and taxes, said McDonough.
More of a school's budget, he added, now goes to maintaining employee health care plans, employee pensions and building maintenance. That leaves many schools starved for research funding, often supplied by the federal government.
And the cost of attending a public, four-year institution increased an average of 3 percent last year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. To defray those cost hikes, school officials say, colleges look for more federal student aid and income tax credits.
Schools use the same basic tactics to lobby for federal money, said Walter Parker, vice president for governmental affairs at the University of North Texas. They send out information packets. They set up meetings with state delegations. They sit down with members of Congress to voice their views on legislation.
Colleges also cultivate federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It's a mutual-benefit relationship. The agencies aren't allowed to lobby Congress. But universities often ask Congress for money for agencies, which in turn might pass the money on to the schools as grants.
And the agencies are not complaining.
“It is in everybody's best interests for science and technology to be well-funded,” said Bill Noxon, spokesman for the National Science Foundation.
Universities also look for money directly from Congress in what's called earmarked funding. This money can be for an array of college projects: Research centers, new buildings and studies.
The lobbying pays off big for many schools. Some examples:
–$1.1 million earmarked for the National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. That's half the center's budget.
–Almost $30 million since 1963 set aside for the Avionics Engineering Center at Ohio University in Athens. The money comes from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the Pentagon.
–More than $15 million doled out annually for the Space Grant College at several universities in Colorado. It's funded by NASA and federal matching dollars.
Congressional earmarking, always a controversial practice, has come under sharp fire recently. As part of his presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has mounted a campaign against it.
And some universities disdain earmarking. “We do not campaign for earmarked funds,” said Jane Corlette, associate vice president for government, community and public affairs at Harvard University. Instead, Corlette said, Harvard lobbies Congress for increased agency funding.
But the schools share a common goal, said April Burke, head of Lewis-Burke and Associates lobbying firm. It specializes in lobbying on education. Its clients include the University of Cincinnati. “The schools,” said Burke, “want to know how to get in on the federal funding.”
Ohio University's Pam Parker plans to spend the next few years finding out how to get her school's piece of the pie. She's had her job only a year. “This is all so new to me,” said Parker. “I am just trying to find out who to talk to that can get funding for Ohio U.”