Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States (actually, the 44th person to be President: Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms screw up the count). What does this mean for higher education?
First off, let’s recollect that where higher education is concerned, the US, like Canada, is a federation where the main decisions about funding public education are made at the state level. Decreased state investment in institutions and consequent rises in tuition have given the federal government a larger though indirect role in the system because the salience of student aid has risen. And of course, the government spends an awful lot of money on scientific research, primarily but not exclusively through the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). And let’s also recollect that while the President names the Secretary of Education, a lot of control over specific budget items rests with Congress, which, despite being controlled by Republicans, will have ideas of their own.
Recall that Trump barely spoke about higher education during the campaign, other than endorsing an even-more-expensive version of income-based repayment than the existing one which was recently discovered to be costing nearly over $50 billion more than expected (short version: he wants to raise the repayment maximum from 10% of income to 12.5% but shorten the time before forgiveness to just 15 years). Also, his education secretary Betsy DeVos, is a K-12 specialist (I’m using the term loosely) with very few known views on higher education. I think it’s a given that their instincts will anti-regulatory and pro-market (which means things are looking up for private for-profits), but it’s hard to see them initiating a lot of new policy. Which means the policy reins, such as they are, will likely be held by the Republican Congress and not the White House.
So what to expect? Well, I think we can rule out any continuation of the Obama White House’s free college agenda, or anything vaguely like it. That idea won’t disappear, but it’s something that’s going to happen in the states rather than in DC (witness Andrew Cuomo’s decision earlier this month to launch his own Ontario-like free tuition-plan). Beyond that, you’re likely to see some cutting back on institutional reporting requirements, particularly with respect to Title IX, the federal law on sex-discrimination in education, and possibly a push towards more competency-based education.
Where it gets interesting, though, is on student-aid. It’s not just that we’re likely to see cuts in things like loans to graduate students and (pace Trump’s own views) loan forgiveness. We may see a return to more private capital in student loans (which would mostly be a bad things); we may also see institutions be required to pay for some of the costs of their own students’ loan defaults (an idea colloquially referred to as requiring institutions to have “skin in the game”. Some think that the new Congress may push what are known as “Income Share Agreements”, which are kind of like graduate taxes only the entity giving the student money and then collecting a percentage of income afterwards is some kind of private investment firm rather than government. One of the most crazy/plausible ideas I’ve heard is from University Ventures’ Ryan Craig who mused recently on twitter about setting rules whereby institutions might have to provide a certain fraction of total aid via ISAs in order to be eligible to receive federal aid.
On the research side: who knows? Clearly, climate science is going to have a hard time. But health sciences often do well under Republicans; the National Institutes of Health went from $18 billion/year to $30 billion/year under Bush Jr, for instance. And Trump might decide to do something big and crazy like announcing a lunar base or a Mars mission (the former is a favourite of Newt Gingrich, the latter an obsession of Elon Musk, who suddenly seems quite close with the incoming White House), either of which would have substantial positive ramifications for university science budgets. So we’ll see.
But put all this into some perspective: as far as Congressional priorities are concerned, changes to student aid are going to come several light years behind repealing Obamacare and dismantling various environmental protections. The former in particular has some pretty serious budget impacts as repealing Obamacare is going to cost a ton of money. That’s going to cause a scramble for offsetting budget cuts – one could imagine some pretty big across-the-board cuts in which higher education-related programs will simply be collateral damage.
It’s bound to be interesting, anyway. Though I for one am glad I get to watch it all from a safe distance.