President-elect Trump and College Attainment

November 9, 2016

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy

What can the college access and success field expect from President-elect Donald Trump? It’s hard to tell one day after the election, especially given that his campaign platform only delved into higher education in a few areas. The two overarching themes from his platform on higher education include:

  • Work with Congress on reforms to ensure universities are making a good faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt in exchange for the federal tax breaks and tax dollars.
  • Ensure that the opportunity to attend a two- or four-year college, or to pursue a trade or a skill set through vocational and technical education, will be easier to access, pay for, and finish.

On the campaign trail, Trump's one higher education speech recommended a generous income-based repayment plan, but stated that the U.S. Department of Education shouldn’t be the one managing loans. He has also discussed accountability for the large tent of higher education, the growing size of some endowments despite the rising cost of college and federal investment, burdensome regulations for higher education institutions, political correctness on campus and that students would not be exempt from his immigration reforms. However, given his small focus on higher education in comparison to other issues – such as immigration, trade, and infrastructure, as mentioned in his acceptance speech – it is more likely that the new Congress will take the lead role on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) with the Trump Administration as one of the negotiators.

HEA, the overarching law that oversees almost all federal involvement in higher education, is past-due for renewal. In addition to addressing income-based repayment  which would likely be part of the reauthorization process regardless of who won the election  several other topics must be addressed, including affordability, regulation on institutions, accreditation/institution quality and sexual assault on campus. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who will likely remain the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is focused on reducing regulations and simplifying the FAFSA form. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who will likely also remain as the likely ranking member unless she moves to the ranking post in the Committee on Appropriations, is particularly focused on sexual assault on campus in addition to affordability.

In the House, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has made it clear that she would like to take over the House Education and the Workforce Committee in light of Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) retirement. As one of the more conservative members of the House, she is very focused on the cost of the federal higher education programs; however, she is also interested in updating the HEA so that it serves post-traditional students. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) will likely continue as ranking member.

Sen. Alexander and Rep. Foxx will now lead the next round of attempts to reauthorize HEA. Two unknowns in these negotiations are affordability and accountability. On affordability, Trump has proposed an income-based repayment plan, a concept with bipartisan support and agreement that the current options are too complicated. In an Oct. 13 speech in Columbus, Ohio, Trump said he would cap student loan payments at 12.5 percent and provide loan forgiveness after 15 years. Higher education budget expert Jason Delisle of the conservative American Enterprise Institute tweeted that Trump's plan is more generous than either Presidents' Obama or Bush. Over the summer, Trump’s top advisor on higher education, Sam Clovis, a professor at Morningside College in Iowa, shared that Trump would also recommend allowing institutions to set lending limits for students.

In related comments on rising college endowments, Inside Higher Ed quotes Trump as saying that universities should, "should be using the money on students, for tuition, for student life and for student housing. That's what it's supposed to be for.” He has not released any proposals on how he would use his role as President or the Higher Education Act to require or persuade institutions to do that.

On the second issue of accountability, Trump said he may consider evaluating colleges based on “performance,” and pointed out that higher education is not just four-year schools, and that, “we must hold all schools equally accountable.” This idea is one the Obama administration has repeatedly suggested and attempted, but has not succeeded beyond the College Scorecard. Republicans, particularly Rep. Foxx, have balked at the idea so it remains to be seen if the Trump administration will try to push it in a Republican-led Congress. In the Sam Clovis interview, the Trump spokesman also mentioned that community colleges should focus on students who “can” graduate.

Another question for President-elect Trump and higher education is whether he actually tries to dismantle the Department. If so, which programs are eliminated and which programs move to other agencies? Given his proposals on student loans and promises to review accountability among colleges, it seems unlikely that he would try. However, this election has been full of unlikely surprises.

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