education policy
Nov 13, 2019

Working with State-Based Campaigns to Advance Higher Education Policy

Advocacy campaigns are a common strategy used to influence consumer behavior for political or consumer oriented action. In education, campaigns have focused on increasing teacher pay in many states and passage of local bond and tax referendums to pay for college and school buildings.

Below are two case studies where campaigns helped to advance higher education policy in South Carolina and Virginia.

South Carolina

In 2013, McGuireWoods Consulting helped form the South Carolina Business Leadership Higher Education Council to develop an assessment and action plan to address the issues connecting the future employment needs of the business community, the essential role of the colleges and technical schools and the accessibility and affordability required to meet these objectives. The initiative was represented by business, political and higher education leaders from across the state.

The findings of the Business Leadership Higher Education Council were a wake-up call to state leaders. Without a stronger commitment to higher education, the state would be ill prepared to meet the future needs of business and industry. The results estimated a shortage of 94,000 associated degree jobs and 70,000 bachelors or higher degree jobs by 2030. To meet the shortage, South Carolina would require 2,500 workers with associate degrees and 4,000 workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher every year by 2030.

As a result of this study the legislature renewed its focus on higher education, especially at the Technical College level.  Working with the South Carolina Department of Commerce, the 16 member Technical College System expanded the very successful Ready SC program to meet specific needs of workforce training and industry expansion.  With funding by the General Assembly, SCTEC also created an apprenticeship program that has answered the needs for existing industry in South Carolina.  The legislature has consistently funded workforce development initiatives at a higher rate since the study was produced, including over $12.5M over five years for STEM programs alone.


In Virginia in 2008, after a successful partnership on a higher education capital construction campaign, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) partnered again with McGuireWoods Consulting to create a strategy for the incoming governor and ultimately the legislature to begin restoring state funding to the institutions after decades of budget reductions.  

In partnership with the VBHEC and the public institutions of higher education, the Grow by Degrees campaign was developed and ultimately set a goal of an additional 100,000 degrees by 2025 to make Virginia the best educated state in the nation. This goal became law in 2011 as part of the Top Jobs for the 21st Century legislation that renewed the Commonwealth’s focus on higher education as a major driver of economic development and put forward a plan for reinvestment and reform in higher education targeted to affordability and access and producing in demand degrees and certificates to meet workforce needs.

Don Finley, President of the VBHEC, recently stated, “the creation of the Grow by Degrees program helped stop the trend of cutting higher education and began a decade of reinvestment in higher education that has continued through three governors. These investments have proven successful in achieving our mission of demonstrating that higher education investments have lead to recruiting and expanding business in Virginia including Amazon and for regaining the ranking of being number one for business. “

The campaign was rebranded in 2017 as Growth4VA and includes a broad-based bipartisan coalition of business, education, and political leaders and Virginians who believe that higher education is a crucial economic engine for our Commonwealth and advocates for all 16 public colleges and universities in Virginia, the Virginia Community College System, and Virginia’s non-profit private institutions.

Most recently, during the 2019 legislative session, the coalition, now with over 10,000 followers, pushed forward legislation and budget requests to address Growth4VA priorities. As a result of these efforts, the General Assembly allocated over $100 million in new funding for the 2019-2020 fiscal year to address affordable access through tuition moderation incentives, talent development, and faculty salaries. Further, the legislature passed important legislation advocated by the coalition that will create a process to partner with the state in key areas including affordable access and cost predictability, talent development, research commercialization, economic development, business process improvements, and other high state priorities.

These priorities were accomplished in part by building a strong coalition of business, education, and political leaders who leveraged extensive social media and email to activate stakeholders to push policy makers to take action and support higher education. A parallel lobby strategy with key business leaders and the institutions was also important to ensuring action by the governor’s office and legislature.

Setting Campaigns up for Success

Successful higher education campaigns must be business-led, and in partnership with institutions to demonstrate the key role institutions can play in the state’s economic development strategy. With ongoing pressures on state budgets to fund increasing Medicaid and K-12 costs, higher education must demonstrate its value to business and industry while insuring affordable access. Advocacy coalitions can help develop common messages that resonate with policy makers and encourage reinvestment in higher education institutions.

Read more on national education trends from MWC's National Education Team