What If Trump Wins?

To think about …

September 23, 2020

If Donald Trump succeeds in his battle to retain the presidency, what are the implications for American higher education? The Trump campaign’s official second-term agenda devotes only 11 total words to K-12 and higher education combined, and the Republican Party declined to issue a party platform for 2020. In his nomination acceptance speech, the president did not discuss higher education at all, aside for a brief denunciation of "radical professors." Nevertheless, one can garner some sense of the direction President Trump might take in a second term from recent policy pronouncements, tweets and regulatory actions.

Patriotic Education

One possible area of emphasis in the Trump second term is “patriotic education.” The White House recently announced its intention to form a federal commission to advance the administration’s views of U.S. history and to promote the concept of American exceptionalism. In the announcement, the president stated,

Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts like those of Howard Zinn to try to make students ashamed of their own history. The left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods and lies … We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

We do not yet know whether the primary focus of the commission will be on K-12 or higher education, but the president’s explicit denunciation of critical race theory, which is taught in classes at many of America’s top-ranked colleges and universities, suggests the target may include college-level instruction.

Attack on Tax-Exempt Status

The president may also seek to alter the tax-exempt status of nonprofit educational institutions. In a recent tweet, the president declared, “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status …” This effort to revisit the tax status of our colleges and universities may come either through investigation of individual schools by the IRS or through legislative or regulatory action. One might think that fundamental changes in this area are unlikely, but the recent decision of Congress to tax some university endowments suggests there is nothing fanciful about this scenario.

University Discrimination Investigations

The Trump administration may also use its investigative power to force universities to change their approach to racism on campus. Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, recently stated that his university needed to take steps to combat systemic racism at the school, noting, “Racist assumptions from the past … remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” In response, the Department of Education has opened an investigation. The department notes that under federal laws and regulations, higher education institutions like Princeton are not eligible for federal research funding or Pell Grants and other financial aid for their students unless they certify that they do not discriminate on the basis of race. The department is now questioning whether Princeton lied when it stated that it did not discriminate, in light of the president’s statements.

Eisgruber’s remarks on race match those made at hundreds of other colleges and universities, where leaders are seeking to remedy past discrimination and tackle often concealed biases on their campuses. The Department of Education’s closely watched investigation may signal the beginning of a campaign -- perhaps a highly selective one -- using the threat of termination of federal subsidies as a tool to alter how campus leaders speak about race and inequality. The potential chilling effect on free speech is enormous.

Political Reality

The president’s recent statements and tweets indicate a profound antagonism toward traditional nonprofit higher education institutions in the United States. Why? The president’s rhetoric may reflect his personal convictions, but regardless, it certainly reflects political reality. Right now, colleges and college-educated persons are a core Democratic party constituency. In a recent poll conducted by Marist from Sept. 11 to Sept. 16, 2020, Joe Biden had a remarkable 63 percent to 32 percent lead over Trump among college-educated adults. And according to recent analysis by Inside Higher Ed, persons listing their employer as a college or university have donated more than five times as much money to Biden than Trump, even when one includes donations from for-profit college executives. In contrast, one poll in 2019 (which is consistent with polls going back to 2017) found that 59 percent of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on our country’s direction.

The implications of this trend -- of college employees and graduates lining up solidly behind Democrats, while Republicans believe higher education is actually harmful -- are profound. In the 20th century, most of the important federal higher education policies, including the GI Bill, Pell Grants and the explosion in federal research funding, enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Now, however, that bipartisan coalition, based on the generally accepted idea that a college education is an unalloyed good and a key component of the American dream, has disappeared. Given polling data, it makes political sense for the president to attack higher education because those attacks resonate with the values of his base. And given higher education’s alignment with the Democratic Party, it would not be surprising to see aggressive efforts by the next Republican administration to change -- or destroy -- what the party increasingly sees as little more than a hostile interest group.


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