Making the Policy Case: A Former State Politician Offers Insight on How Higher Ed Can Better Convey Its Value and Mission to Lawmakers

Higher education—particularly the liberal arts—has been under attack for several decades, with the 2008 financial crisis intensifying questions about the value of a college degree. Attacks have only worsened in the current political climate. In a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of Republicans—up from 37 percent in 2015—said that college had a negative effect on the United States.1 In a 2018 Gallup poll, only 33 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats said they were confident in US colleges.2 Republicans cited politics, agenda, and subject matter for their lack of confidence, while Democrats most frequently noted cost as an issue.

With policies affecting funding, support for students, endowments, and more at stake, how can colleges and universities effectively demonstrate their value to policy makers and key community figures? For some insight and advice, Liberal Education’s Christen Aragoni spoke with William T. Bolling, former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia (2006–14) and emeritus senior fellow in residence for public service at James Madison University, about how higher education leaders can make their case.

How did a college education make a difference in your life? How do colleges, even those reticent of appearing political, tap alumni ambassadors to help demonstrate the value of attending college?

I grew up in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields. My dad had only an eighth-grade education, and my mom had only graduated from high school, but they both understood the importance of education in enabling me to have opportunities in life that they never had. They insisted from an early age that I was going to go to college, and, of course, I did. That enabled me to do things, go places, and achieve more than I would have ever dreamed possible. There are a lot of people out there who have similar stories, and getting them to share their experiences with young people who may not think it is possible for them to go to college can make a huge difference in their lives. I don’t see that as being political. It’s just common sense. The challenge is identifying these people and getting them engaged as mentors and role models.

You served as a lieutenant governor of Virginia as a Republican. How can you help the higher education community understand the Republican negativity toward the value of higher education? How do higher ed leaders effectively respond to these critiques?

The polling data certainly suggest that many Republican leaders and voters are growing more and more skeptical of the value of higher education, in general, and a liberal arts education, specifically. Frankly, I think that’s because they don’t always fully understand what a liberal arts education means or appreciate the value of a liberal arts degree. They are also skeptical of the increasing cost of higher education, and whether it still remains a good value. Colleges and universities and their alumni need to do a better job educating our leaders on the importance of the liberal arts and the difference it can make in people’s lives. And we need to do a better job explaining to policy makers that every student on our campus is actively engaged in a job-training program. Whether they are studying education, health care, the sciences, engineering, technology, history, or the arts, they are all being trained to go into the workforce and be contributing members of society. That’s what political leaders are focusing on today, and the truth is that we’ve been doing that in the liberal arts for years. We just haven’t done a very good job of communicating it.

What about reaching more prospective rural and lower-middle-class students and supporting such students as they earn their degree? There’s a lot of criticism that this demographic is getting ignored.

We talk a lot about the “rural horseshoe” in Virginia. It’s those parts of Virginia that encompass most of the rural regions of the state. Students in these areas are less likely to complete high school and less likely to attend college. We’ve got to change that dynamic. In Virginia, we have a program to put more career coaches in public schools to identify and get these at-risk students to stay in school and seriously consider going to a community college or a four-year college after graduation. At James Madison University (JMU), under the leadership of President Jonathan Alger, we’ve started a Valley Scholars Program in seven localities surrounding JMU. The initiative identifies high-risk eighth-grade students who have college potential but might not be able to go to college due to financial hardship. We enroll them in an intense four-year program that supports their academic and social development and guarantees them admission and full scholarship and fees to JMU if they successfully complete the program. Our first cohort of thirty-five students enrolled at JMU in the fall of 2019, and we’re excited to have them.

Is the term liberal education too problematic in its political association—that is, do we need to refer differently to a liberal education? Would this make a difference in the political sphere?

The term liberal education certainly has negative connotations in some people’s minds, but that’s because they don’t really understand what the term means. Some people have suggested doing away with the term, but I don’t think that’s the answer. The answer is education. We need to do a better job educating people that a liberal education has nothing do with being a “liberal.” It has everything to do with the breadth of knowledge that we impart to our students. We don’t need to abandon the term—we need to do a better job of explaining it.

What advice do you have for higher education leaders for reaching out to governors and state-level politicians?

Everything at the state and federal level today is increasingly based on job-skill training, results, marketability, and making certain that we are using limited resources wisely. When we present the case for higher education, we need to present it in those terms. Otherwise, we’re telling a story that no one wants to hear. We need to talk about the economic impact of higher education, how we are providing our students with the skills they need to obtain jobs in the twenty-first century, and the results we are achieving in graduating students, helping them find jobs, and helping employers find the employees they need to successfully compete in the marketplace. We’ve all got great stories to tell in each of these areas, and we need to tell them in a coherent and effective manner.

As lieutenant governor, you found that meeting with college and university presidents was more effective than meeting with their government relations staff members. Why does this matter? What should leaders be prepared to present, convey, and ask in a meeting with policy makers?

Elected officials have limited time. Most of them want to be accessible to their constituents, but the different pressures on them can make this challenging. Government relations staff members certainly play a critical role in monitoring legislation and influencing the outcome of legislation, but most elected officials are much more impressed when a university president takes the time to engage with them. Most legislators will always take a meeting with a university president. And when you get that meeting, be prepared to talk about the economic impact that your university is having on the state and the effort you are making to educate students with the skills they need to fill jobs that employers are looking to fill.

How do we better educate lawmakers on endowments?

That’s a tough one. In a world of limited resources and increasing tuition and fees, large endowments will always stand out as a point of focus and potential controversy for political leaders. The biggest problem is that legislators don’t always understand the purpose of endowments or how they work. Like everything else, we have to be prepared to tackle that head-on and explain it to them. For example, they may not fully understand that these are donated funds, not rolled over general funds. They may not understand that most of the dollars are earmarked for use in certain ways. And it’s always important to be able to show how endowment dollars are being used for other worthwhile purposes, especially things like scholarship programs for students who need the extra help. If endowments are cloaked with an aura of secrecy, they will be viewed skeptically, but if we are transparent about where endowments come from and how they are used, we can overcome a lot of this skepticism.

You’ve discussed the importance not only of college presidents going to the state capitol but also of getting politicians to come to campus. What are good ways to do this? How do colleges prepare for a politician’s visit?

It’s critical to get political leaders involved at the university level, and there are a number of ways to effectively do that. At JMU, we invite our local legislators to campus to have lunch with the president, talk about issues of interest to higher education, and tour the campus. We try to get them engaged in the classroom. That might mean talking to a government class about their role in the legislature or participating in special projects like our semi-annual Health Policy Summit or our X-Labs program. We also ask them to be judges on public policy panels to evaluate student reports and presentations. And they always like to take advantage of a Saturday afternoon football game or other sporting or arts event. They feel more a part of the university. That helps them better understand what we are trying to accomplish and how they can help support that mission.

What about the importance of a university or college getting involved in the local community as part of demonstrating the value of higher ed to a broader audience?

One of the best-kept secrets is the impact most universities have on their local communities, well beyond the campus. We often talk about the economic impact that the university has on a region, but we don’t always talk enough about our specific community-based programs. We just finished a detailed analysis of JMU’s community-based programs that impact education, health care, economic and community development, the arts, and much more. It’s an eighteen-page report and still growing. We were shocked to see the breadth of those programs when they were all put together in one place. We’re offering free clinics to low-income families and the homeless. We run a bus into low-income communities to encourage reading, and we also distribute food bags from that same bus to people in need. Our students, faculty, and staff are making a difference in people’s lives every single day in ways most people know nothing about. I suspect that’s the case at most universities. We need to tell that story better. We need to emphasize that while educating our students is our highest priority, higher education has an impact well beyond the work that takes place on the campus.

You were serving as lieutenant governor during the tragedy at Virginia Tech. How do we get policy makers to work with campus leaders to make schools safer?

April 16, 2007, was without a doubt the worst day of my life. Governor Tim Kaine was out of the state when the shootings occurred, and I was one of the first state leaders on campus that day to help support the students, staff, and families. I don’t think you’re ever prepared for something like that, and you’re never the same after dealing with it.

When it comes to improving campus safety, the key is to focus on the things we can build consensus around. That’s what we tried to do in the days, weeks, and months following the Virginia Tech tragedy. We significantly strengthened our statewide mental-health service and reporting programs, and we put in place better training and response programs for tragedies like this. We often get wrapped up in the debate over gun control, which is certainly fair, but it is unlikely that anyone will change anyone else’s opinion on that controversial topic. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of other things that we can unite around that can make campuses safer and better enable us to reduce the likelihood that something like this can occur again. My best advice is to focus on the possible. Focus on the things that unite us, not on the things that divide us.

To flip this conversation around: I’ve been asking about advice for campus leaders. But what would you want policy makers to think about in the context of valuing higher education?

Well, this is easier said than done, but my best advice to policy makers is, don’t assume that you know everything about higher education, and don’t assume that everything you think you know is right, because it probably isn’t. I’ve seen higher education from more perspectives than most people. I’ve seen it from the perspective of a student, a parent, a state senator, a lieutenant governor, a university board member, and now as a university employee. I’ve learned something different at every stop along the way. Higher education is a big and complicated institution and it has a lot of moving parts. It takes time to know it. My best advice to policy makers is to take the time to really understand higher education’s strengths and challenges and how we can all work together to make it better. We need strong colleges and universities—both public and private—to make our society work, and we need partnerships with policy makers to accomplish the goals that we all share.

At a time when colleges are struggling to increase the public’s trust in them, what about politicians? The current Virginia governor has been dealing with a racist incident in his past and the current lieutenant governor is facing allegations of sexual assault. How do college communities and citizens more broadly have any faith in the people making policies that affect higher ed and beyond?

Well, we’ve certainly been going through an unusual and challenging time here in Virginia. I don’t know where that will all end up. The situation involving the governor can be a learning moment. He has indicated that he wants to dedicate the rest of his term in office to racial reconciliation. We’re trying to do the same thing here at James Madison University. We just named a new dormitory after Paul Jennings, who was born to an enslaved woman at Montpelier and became a household slave and later James Madison’s personal manservant. After Madison’s death, Jennings purchased his freedom. As a free man in Washington, he worked in the US Pension Office, raised a family, and purchased a home. He died in 1874 at age 75. His descendants include 2005 JMU graduate Raleigh Marshall, who earned a degree in computer science.3 His is a story of hope and possibility. That’s the challenge for us all—how do we take the difficult things that we experience in life and turn them into hope and possibility?

Any hope to offer on the future of higher ed, liberal education, and/or the political climate?

I graduated from a small liberal arts college in 1979—the University of Charleston in West Virginia. That little school was going through a lot of challenges at the time, and a lot of people didn’t think it would make it. Today, the University of Charleston is not only still around; it’s growing and doing some incredible things. That happened because the school had leaders who were willing to think outside the box and do things differently. Higher education and the liberal arts may be facing some peculiar challenges today, but strength can emerge out of that adversity as well. We have to remain focused on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We have to be open to change, and we have to be willing to embrace change. And we have to build relationships that can last into the future.


1. “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions,” Pew Research Center, July 10, 2017,

2. Frank Newport and Brandon Busteed, “Why Are Republicans Down on Higher Ed?,” Gallup, August 16, 2017,

3. “JMU to Name New Residence Hall after Paul Jennings, a Madison Family Slave,” James Madison University News, February 11, 2019,

William T. Bolling is former lieutenant governor of Virginia (2006–14) and emeritus senior fellow in residence for public service at James Madison University. During AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting, he participated in the panel discussion “Affirming the Mission: The Liberal Arts and America’s Future.”

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