I once had a meeting with a whip-smart Republican congressman to discuss federal financial aid reform. As I was ushered into his office, one of his policy advisors was busily dialing up a speakerphone. On the other end of the line? The president of the local private college. As the district’s most important constituent on higher education policy, leaving him out of this policy discussion would have been politically unwise.
The thing is, every member might as well have a college president on speed dial. Using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, I tallied the number of two and four-year colleges in each congressional district that participate in federal student aid programs (prior to the 2012 redistricting). In 2011-2012, every single district had at least one college within its boundaries, and the median district had 11. Fully 387 districts—more than enough for a congressional majority—had more than five colleges. (These numbers don’t even count the 2,000 less-than two-year colleges.)
Because student aid vouchers go directly to students rather than colleges, we don’t tend to think about these programs as distributive policies like farm subsidies or infrastructure spending. But that’s largely semantics. Aid money eventually winds up in college coffers just the same. And colleges happen to be quite equitably distributed across every single congressional district in the country, meaning every constituency benefits from the status quo.