Book Review: “Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education: Politics and Policymaking in the Postsecondary Sector”

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

The absence of the word “education” in the Constitution, along with that document’s mandate that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” have formed the basis for many arguments against federal involvement of any kind in education at all levels. Indeed, ever since President Carter created the Department of Education in 1979, many have argued against its necessity and constitutionality, and some presidents and presidential candidates have threatened to dissolve it. But that has stopped no one—the Department’s detractors included—from taking actions to leave a federal imprint on the higher education environment, including using colleges’ receipt of any type of federal funds as a lever to enforce compliance with various federal laws, rules, and procedures. The federal role in higher education currently extends to areas as diverse as holding colleges accountable for quality education, FERPA, students’ civil rights, research performed for federal agencies, and labor laws for college employees.

David SheridanReviewed by David Sheridan, Director of Financial Aid at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs

With her 2022 book, “Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education,” Hofstra University professor Rebecca S. Natow sets out to give the reader a firm understanding of how politics and the federal government’s structure and authority shape what happens on our campuses. Drawing on thorough examination of legislation, federal policy, and relevant research, as well as personal interviews, Natow delivers a well-written primer on how higher education policy is formed in this country, from the history of the federal footprint on higher education, to the specific responsibilities of different players and how today’s political environment impacts postsecondary education.

Natow’s book examines how the legislative, executive, and judicial branches shape higher education and includes robust and informative descriptions of the authority and responsibility held by the various federal branches and agencies. In a chapter specifically about federal administrative agencies, the author provides examples of actions taken by each branch, ranging from historical actions (e.g., the establishment of land grant colleges and the GI Bill following World War II) to actions as recent as the CARES Act.

I would recommend this book to any financial aid professional who wishes to develop a stronger understanding of the public policy of student aid and higher education in general. State and regional associations might even want to consider this book as recommended reading for new government/federal relations committee members. If you plan to advocate for public policy that genuinely helps students, it’s beneficial to know as much as possible about the many moving parts in the very complex federal engine. Perhaps some more politically involved readers will already be familiar with much of the content in this book, but even those who pay the most attention to the inner workings of the federal government can appreciate the breadth and depth of the information and the good historical perspective Natow provides. For those who are inexperienced in the intersection of higher education with politics who are eager to learn more, this book is a must read.

In the past few years alone, financial aid has been elevated in public awareness through high-profile policy decisions such as The CARES Act; student loan cancellation promised, granted, and then shot down; and the trials and tribulations of FAFSA Simplification. These examples encompass all three branches of the federal government. As aid professionals, we are the experts. It’s up to us to be informed, and “Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education” can serve as an excellent resource in that aspect of any financial aid administrator’s professional development.

“Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education: Politics and Policymaking in the Postsecondary Sector” by Rebecca S. Natow, Teachers College Press, 2022, 245 pp.


David Sheridan is the director of financial aid emeritus at Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs. Throughout the course of his career, he has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students and in both the private and public sections. He has served as a member of NASFAA's Higher Education Committee of 50, chair of NASFAA's Federal Issues Committee, chair of NASFAA's Graduate and Professional Loan Limits Task Force, NJASFAA president, NJASFAA federal relations chair, EASFAA training chair, EASFAA federal relations chair, EASFAA conference chair, and a 2023 recipient of the EASFAA Lifetime Membership Award. In 2020, NASFAA awarded Sheridan the Allan W. Purdy Distinguished Service Award, one of the highest awards NASFAA bestows.


Publication Date: 5/29/2024

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