(Nick Tomecek/Northwest Florida Daily)

Few sectors of the economy have been hit harder in the proposed overhaul of the federal tax code than higher education. The legislation calls for new taxes on graduate students and the endowments held by wealthy institutions, and the elimination of several student and family tax benefits.

College leaders I have talked with in recent weeks seem to have been blindsided by what they see as an attack on one of the strengths of the U.S. economy. Perhaps one of the reasons they didn’t see this coming is that for many of them, Washington has become an afterthought. Although federal dollars account for a sizable portion of campus budgets when financial aid and research are included, college presidents seem to be spending less time looking after that money in Washington (especially when compared to their counterparts in other industries).

When I first started writing about higher education two decades ago, college and university leaders were fixtures on Capitol Hill, along with their hired lobbyists. Congress still allowed earmarks, pork barrel spending that until 2011 delivered billions of dollars annually for research and facilities on campuses, and institutions wanted their place at the trough. When college officials visited their elected representatives, they also had an opportunity to talk about their schools and how federal policies affected their students and researchers.

Now, I’m not suggesting we bring back earmarks, but when widespread pork barrel spending ended, many universities pulled back on their Washington presence, particularly visits to Capitol Hill. Lobbying also became much more fractured across higher education as schools fixated on parochial needs.

Lobbying turned into a transaction, with fewer college leaders making the case for the larger societal good that higher education provides. Large research universities focused on funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, while private colleges lobbied for student aid and fewer regulations. The responsibility for talking about the public good fell to a small group of lobbyists for the national associations.

Maybe higher education leaders thought, incorrectly, that universities would always occupy a privileged spot among lawmakers who supported their alma maters and had children or grandchildren in college. But that support for colleges began to decay in the late 1990s when Congress proposed efforts to rein in runaway college tuition. Even Democrats in Washington became a less reliable voting bloc for higher education in recent years.

Meanwhile, Republicans distanced themselves from academia altogether, annoyed by what they saw as growing intolerance of conservative views on campuses. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. If you want to see what this means for higher education in one state (Arizona) where the GOP controls basically everything, read this excellent piece in last week’s Washington Post by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan.

If college and university officials spent more time in Washington in recent years talking to lawmakers instead of treating them with contempt back on college campuses, those school officials might have foreseen this tax legislation. And this legislation might only be the start of bad news for higher education. Republicans control the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and the majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions. No matter what, higher education still depends on the GOP to support colleges and students at the federal and state level, at least for now.

You would think that because the tax bills were introduced last month, college and university presidents would be marching on Washington to lobby against the proposals. But rather than pay personal visits, most are simply penning letters. Perhaps they know their arguments would probably fall on deaf ears.

Whatever happens with this tax overhaul, the provisions affecting higher education have exposed a deep rift between Congress and academia. It’s clear that if colleges and universities want to gain the trust of lawmakers, they need to take a page from the playbook of lobbyists who represent interests deeply entrenched in Washington — the bankers, defense and developers. That’s what technology companies did several years ago when Silicon Valley had a strained relationship with Washington.

Colleges and universities can’t afford to spend what for-profit companies can on lobbying, nor should they. But academic leaders need to start treating what is happening now to higher education as a campaign for its future — because it is.