A branch public policy director asked my opinion on the question of admitting people without college degrees to AAUW membership. I am posting it here, as it has a lot to do with public policy. I cannot and will not attempt to oversimplify or give you a pat answer (pun inevitable).
Historically, AAUW had as part of its mission to promote women’s education. Equal access to education was an important issue in a time when medical doctors promulgated the opinion that education was harmful to a woman’s health and all-important biological fertility. We no longer hear this opinion from respected sources. Women are no longer behind men in college graduation rates: The Atlantic reported that in 2017 women comprised 56% of college graduates (bachelor’s). This doesn’t surprise me, since I worked for and with the National Center for Education Statistics. At conventions we heard several times from a researcher who was concerned with the diminishing rates of college attendance and college graduation among men. As I’ve said many times, this is a battle we have won. We need to move on. I do not believe that the promise of AAUW membership motivates young women to complete their degrees today. When AAUW was more prominent socially, that might have been the case, but when degree attainment is as common as it is today, that hardly seems plausible.
Let us consider the credibility and effectiveness of our advocacy. That is important in public policy. One of our Public Policy committee members a couple of years ago was also a member of the national lobby corps, and she firmly believed that their status as “educated women” gave them more credibility. I’m not sure how she knew, but I do believe that it gave her more confidence. That is valuable in lobbying. I think both humanities and sciences backgrounds can be useful—you need to have some command of statistics, but personal stories have a lot of impact. We need more of those! However, we have to recognize that in the last 40 years or so, the public’s respect for expertise has declined drastically. Many decisions by government officials are strongly influenced by emotion (or what they think will be the emotions of voters). When our members are trying to persuade officials to take or not take some action, will careful analysis or passionate pleading be most successful? Every time I write a Florida Action Alert, the national office rewrites it to put in more emotional content.
Now let us consider membership. We know that our membership has been on the decline for some time. We have been told that the paradigms and customs of the past will not suffice to grow our membership. One of the main arguments for doing away with the degree requirement—now only a two-year degree—is that it will allow us to recruit women who share our values but don’t have a degree. Is having a degree one of our values? Does one have to possess a degree in order to promote “high-quality public education…academic freedom, civic education, protection from censorship, bias-free education, and responsible funding for all levels of education” (from AAUW Public Policy Principles for Action 2017-19). No. See above on advocacy in general. I scarcely believe that any of my four college degrees would cut any ice at a school board meeting compared with the word of a parent of whatever educational level, but I haven’t really tried this experiment.
Finally, let us be pragmatic about this vote to drop the degree requirement. Since far more women are earning college degrees today, there should be plenty of potential members to recruit. We just have to find them. I can see the advantages of having the viewpoint of certain stakeholders who don’t have college degrees, but the idea of associate memberships or friend memberships has been floated in the past and people didn’t like the idea of second-class memberships. From the standpoint of public policy, I believe we need to have more community education events and advocacy events open to the public, where participants don’t have to be members. Moreover, we can and should work on projects, particularly advocacy projects, in coalition with other groups in the community that share our values and goals. There are a lot of opportunities for women who want to advocate for equity for women and girls, including older organizations like NOW and newer ones like the Women’s March. Neither of these has a degree requirement. We can work with them and learn from their viewpoints.
Personally, I like the idea of our being known as educated women, as long as we continue to use and build on our education and exercise our ability to come to reasoned conclusions. And as long as we are bold enough to stand up for them!