Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Fear and Loathing in Higher Education: No One Knows What Trump’s College Agenda Looks Like

Confusion and uncertainty. Gridlock and disagreement.

Sound familiar?

No, we’re not just talking about the political machinations on Capitol Hill. It’s also a pretty good characterization of the discussion on “The Changing Politics of Higher Education” at the 2017 Education Writers Association seminar at Georgetown University.

Just a short drive from the White House and Capitol Hill, panelists agreed there’s not much concrete information to telegraph the direction of the Trump administration’s higher education agenda. Beyond that, however, little middle ground was found between the panelists on what the future holds for federal involvement in postsecondary education.

In short, no one quite knows what’s going to happen and everyone’s got a different view on whether it’ll be good or bad, depending on their perspectives.

“The unpredictable, chaotic decisionmaking that all of you are seeing is worse than it looks,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said of Trump’s higher education agenda.

Of the 15 appointed positions at the U.S. Department of Education, just one — Secretary Betsy DeVos — has been named and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he said. They’ve announced their choice for one more position, but the rest is a mystery.

This is important for higher education watchers because the personalities and priorities of the top civil servants typically indicate the direction policy will take. DeVos, who declined to speak at this year’s EWA meeting, has been keenly focused on K-12 education but not what comes after high school graduation.

“They’re very slow off the start,” Hartle said, adding, “Higher education is just not a priority of this administration and of this secretary.”

That statement drew a mild rebuke from Jason Delisle, the higher education financing fellow at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. The Trump administration’s recently-released budget proposal are full of signals about what this president considers important, he said.

“That’s a big signal about what they want to do and where they want to go,” Delisle said. The budget proposes eliminating subsidized Stafford loans, ending the public-service loan-forgiveness program, cutting work-study funding by half and limiting and tweaking income-based repayment options.

It also proposes forgiving outstanding student loans for undergraduates after 15 years, which Delisle said would be a major net benefit for students who might otherwise struggle under the weight of student debt for decades.

That must be balanced against the administration’s other higher education proposals, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Nassirian and Hartle said the mystery factor is what worries colleges most now. How will federal tax policy affect student loans? If the interest rates on these loans increases for undergraduates, how will students weigh that against earlier loan forgiveness programs? What about graduate students, who higher education leaders worry will be shouldering the burden for shortening undergrads’ forgiveness period?

And will the Trump administration even follow through on any of this?

“The issue in our mind is the likelihood of almost anything happening,” Nassirian said.

During the panel discussion Hartle and Delisle tussled over higher education policies under the Barack Obama years and how to compare those to the what the current administration might do.

Later, Nassirian took issue with research Delisle said AEI will soon release. The study, said Delisle, debunks the well-held belief that cuts in state higher education funding directly correlate with tuition increases at public colleges and universities.

“Looks like public universities respond in different ways other than increasing tuition,” Delisle said, claiming there was no “strong” link between cuts and cost increases.

Nassirian said he didn’t want to “prejudge the study” without seeing it. Still, decoupling those ideas sounded to him like “cold fusion in the kitchen sink.”

Delisle shot back: “Have your institutions ever raised tuition when appropriations were rising?”

“Yes,” said Nassirian, to which Delisle responded, “That’s it. No correlation. It’s as simple as that.”

Tuition has skyrocketed in recent years, said Nassirian. But state funding has also dropped about $1,400 per full-time student equivalent since 2008, adjusted for inflation, he added.

Nassirian said he will always acknowledge the possibility a direct correlation isn’t there, but continuing to cut higher education funding and expecting those same institutions to improve without increasing costs was anathema to rational thinking.

“Things are better in terms of participation and access,” Nassirian added. “Things are not that much better in terms of affordability.”

Hartle added that Medicaid spending will continue to be a good indicator of how and how much states will fund higher education. More spending on the former means less in the latter, he explained, a trend that’s likely to continue as health care policy changes under the new administration.

This is especially true in states that rely on oil and gas revenues, which have seen their budgets hit in recent years with a drop in prices. In those states, Nassirian said, leaders are still “looking at gimmicks and variations and tricks” to better fund higher education.”

Bandages without antibiotics won’t solve the sickness.

What all three panelists, and moderator Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education, agreed on is the higher education policies pushed by the Trump administration — and how states act on these new mandates and suggestions — will touch every aspect of our daily lives.

From immigration and scientific research to consumer protection and tax policy, there are far more unknowns than answers, which is creating a lot of uncertainty and concern in the higher education community. Only time will tell whether these fears are borne out.