March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating by recognizing the women who are making history today by working to impact policy change in various areas where Arnold Ventures works.
Today, we’re highlighting Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics at Third Way, a national think tank that champions modern center-left ideas.
Who She Is
In the fifth grade, Lanae Erickson voted for Ross Perot in the mock election held by her class. This orthodoxy-busting move was the first indication that she’d spend her life and career looking beyond conventional political frameworks to challenge the status quo and find common cause across traditional ideological divides. A true believer in listening to all sides of an argument, Lanae loves working on the hardest and most divisive subjects, and at Third Way, she does just that, tackling hot-button issues like immigration, crime, and guns, as well as helping to drive crucial policy conversations like how we can ensure our higher education system is delivering for students.
A Midwesterner and deep believer in the ability to change people’s minds by creating empathy and acknowledging and addressing their concerns, Erickson thinks that sustainable progress in America comes from building public support for change. She spearheaded Third Way’s Commitment Campaign, which mobilized moderate Americans to support marriage for gay couples by shifting the conversation from one focused on legal rights and benefits to one highlighting the importance of making a lifetime commitment in front of family and friends. This is an issue particularly close to Lanae’s heart, as it was only a week after her own wedding that President Obama became the first president to voice his support for marriage equality, saying he didn’t want to deny committed couples the ability to make that promise to take care of one another for a lifetime.
What She’s Currently Working On
Her obsession is creating the substantive and political conditions that force Congress and the Biden Administration to take bold action to ensure both students and taxpayers are getting a return on their higher education investment. For too long, the federal role in higher education has been primarily to write blank checks to colleges and universities, focusing only on increasing access to postsecondary education without asking the question “access to what?”
This myopia has left America taxpayers and college-goers with huge costs, often for little to no return: Nearly half of students who enroll never complete their degree, thousands of programs leave students with looming debt and insufficient earnings to ever pay it back, and predatory institutions make students worse off than if they had never attended college in the first place. By refocusing the conversation on the outcomes students should be able to expect when they attend a federally-funded college or university — and by pushing for greater transparency of those outcomes — Erickson and her team are demanding that institutions be held accountable for what they’ve promised when they cash taxpayers’ and students’ checks.
What Inspires Her
“What gets me out of bed in the morning is standing up for folks that don’t have a strong advocate in Washington and fighting against those who have outsized influence in politics. Whether it’s advocating for commonsense gun safety measures or pushing policymakers to see that the interests of the powerful higher education lobby don’t always serve the best interests of students, I thrive on a David and Goliath battle that allows me to give voice to the un- or under-represented people and causes. I believe that the out-of-balance power dynamics in Washington are at the root of most of our policy problems in this country, and if we better represented the interests and views of all Americans in our political process, we’d get better policy and better outcomes.”
What gets me out of bed in the morning is standing up for folks that don’t have a strong advocate in Washington and fighting against those who have outsized influence in politics.Lanae Erickson senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics at Third Way