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Sarah Spreitzer, director, government relations, ACE, US

Sarah Spreitzer is director, government relations at The American Council on Education, a membership organisation made up of 1,700 colleges and universities and other organisations in America and abroad. Spreitzer spoke to The PIE about how she became involved in higher education policy, the advocacy work she is involved in and some of the issues that international students in the US are facing due to Covid-19.


"There have been indications that the administration may make changes to the OPT program"

The PIE News: How did you get involved with higher education?

Sarah Spreitzer: I have probably the weirdest story in all of higher education policy. I moved down to Washington D.C. to study for my masters in mediaeval archaeology, and I was basically a first-generation college student, definitely a first-generation graduate school student. I had no idea what I was doing.

“You speak with a much broader voice because they have to be things that the entire sector agrees on”

I’d done a study abroad semester actually in London.  I worked at the Museum of London and I came out to D.C. to study at a Catholic university. I got a little frustrated with academia but I realised I still wanted to work with academics, so I just kind of fell into doing higher education policy. 

The PIE: Where did you work before ACE? 

SS: My first job was at the University of Washington in their D.C. office. I think my first portfolio was education policy, some science funding and then immigration and I started that job in 2000.

I was there for about eight years and then I moved over to a lobbying firm that only worked with non-profit research universities or research organisations. I was there for about another eight years. I opened up an office for the University of Missouri in Washington, and I was there for three years and then I moved over to ACE. 

The PIE: Tell me about your work at ACE and how it is different from your previous roles. 

SS: ACE is my first association job; I’ve mostly worked for individual institutions of higher education. When I worked for the University of Missouri, that was a large public four-year institution.

But at ACE, because we’re the umbrella higher education group, I also represent community colleges and small private universities, and their priorities are a little different. You speak with a much broader voice because they have to be things that the entire sector agrees on. 

Working for the association is interesting. When you are working for an institution, you have to constantly worry about the politics of where your institution is located and whether it’s the local politics, whether it’s the politics within the institution or whether it’s the politics with your congressional delegation.

The association is nonpartisan, and sometimes we can speak in a voice in which, let’s say, a public institution in a red state can’t. We’re very active in advocating for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] program, for example. 

“We’re very active in advocating for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program”

The PIE: What aspects of your work are you particularly passionate about? 

SS: I never planned to do this with my life, but I really enjoy it. I love advocating for the issues that I work on. They’re all things that I personally feel very strongly about.

I love the fact that I get to interact with different people and meet people coming from our campuses and our member institutions that are super smart. You get to know them and understand how to help our students and our faculty. It’s a really great job. 

The PIE: Tell me about some of the advocacy work that you are currently doing. 

SS: One of the issues I’m working on right now is foreign gift and contract reporting with the Department of Education. It’s called Section 117.

That’s been incredibly frustrating, because we’ve been really trying to do the right thing to amplify the issue for our institutions, to try to engage our productive dialogue with the department. But it’s been really difficult. It’s like we take one step forward and then the department does something and we take two steps back. 

The PIE: What is ACE doing at the moment around Covid-19? 

SS: Well, right now, we’re engaging with Congress as they put together relief packages. We have worked a lot on the CARES Act, which was passed in early April. We’ve been dealing a lot with the implementation because it provided around $14billion to institutions of higher ed.

Half of that money was to go to the students and we’ve been working with our institutions to try and get the money, understand the guidance that’s been put out by the Department of Education and then try and support them as they get that money out.

They’re working on the next package, which actually just passed the House of Representatives called the HEROES Act. We’re trying to get a sense of when the Senate might take that up. 

“For international students, one of the big issues is the way that the CARES Act was passed”

But for international students, one of the big issues is the way that the CARES Act was passed. It just said that the money would go to students – it doesn’t talk about eligibility for students.

There was a sense that perhaps international students would qualify for that funding. Then the department put out guidance and said basically it was only open to individuals that could complete an application for federal financial aid, which is only open to like US citizens or a few exceptions, non-citizens. 

The PIE: What other upcoming issues might international students be facing in the coming months because of Covid-19? 

SS: We have students that are graduating that may be applying for optional practical training and there have been indications that the administration may make changes to that program. 

About a month ago, they did an executive order that paused all new green cards. There’s talk that they’re going to do another executive order that’s going to be looking at non-immigrant visas, which would include student visas. I’m really concerned about the timing because students will be graduating.

If there is a pause to OPT, that will be really difficult for our international students who are counting on that program to probably stay here, especially if they’re unable to return to their home countries. 

The PIE: Where do you see yourself in five years time? 

SS: I think continuing in higher ed policy and working at the American Council on Education. As I said, this is my first experience working for an association and I really, enjoy working with the different types of institutions and working on these really broad issues. 

When you work for an individual college or university, it’s easy to get caught up in campus politics and so ACE is a great place because it is very broad. It has a huge impact on the national conversation, on a lot of these issues and it feels like I’m making a difference. 

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