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When the Justice Department sued Yale University last week for considering race and ethnicity as one factor in its admissions policies, it was the latest example of the Trump administration pushing a conservative agenda by targeting colleges over issues like race and protests against conservative speakers on campuses.
And higher ed leaders worry that one of the impacts on colleges and universities should Trump be elected to a second term would be more of the same.
“I suspect what we’ll see is what we’ve seen over the past year -- an increased focus on populism with attacks on ‘elites,’” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations and a top lobbyist for colleges and universities. “More micromanagement through heavy-handed executive orders.”
However, in other areas, it’s less clear what a second term would bring.
Just months into the Trump administration’s first term, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved quickly to undo the Obama administration’s policies aimed primarily at for-profit colleges -- one that that had made it easier for borrowers who had been defrauded to have their student loans forgiven, and another to prevent federal student aid from going to colleges where graduates couldn’t earn enough to repay their debts.
Borrower defense protections, gone. Gainful employment requirements, gone.
But with those policies already dismantled, higher education leaders say it’s unclear what policies affecting colleges and universities would next be high on the administration's agenda.
Conservatives like the members of the Republican Study Committee, a group in the House of Representatives, are pressing for changes like letting Pell Grants be used to for job training that does not require a college degree, in order, they say, to reverse a “bachelor's-or-bust” mentality in the nation. And Trump has made moves like ordering the removal of requirements for college degrees for federal jobs unless absolutely necessary -- a popular move with a base of supporters who disproportionately did not pursue higher education.
But the Trump campaign, in contrast to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s wish list of policies including making public colleges free and or canceling much of the nation’s student debt, hasn’t laid out a detailed higher education platform three weeks before the election.
The Education Department didn’t comment on what DeVos’s higher education priorities might be in a second term, despite the array of issues facing higher education, including the high drop-out rate this fall of low-income students. Or even if she plans on being around.
“They’ve aggressively deregulated. What’s left for them to do? It’s hard to know,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the left-leaning think tank New America, who served as an adviser to the Obama administration on higher education.
“I really don’t expect a huge proactive regulatory agenda,” said Beth Stein, senior adviser to the Institute for College Access and Success, in terms of changing higher education regulations. “It might be kind of quiet.”
More Probes and Lawsuits
But, as the Yale lawsuit illustrated, the Trump administration has been willing to use the investigative powers of agencies to pressure universities to change policies it finds objectionable.
In the lawsuit against Yale filed in a Connecticut federal court Thursday, the Justice Department accused the university of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants, a charge the university president, Peter Salovey, strongly denied.
The lawsuit comes after a number of other moves by the administration targeting specific universities. Last month, the Education Department announced a controversial probe of Princeton University’s attempts to deal with systemic racism.
The department said it is investigating whether the university had violated civil rights laws when its president acknowledged it, like other parts of American society, has had a history of systemic racism. Rather than praising the university for acknowledging the existence of racism, DeVos used the admission to launch the probe.
Also troubling to colleges was Trump’s executive order requiring free inquiry at colleges, after colleges like the State University of New York at Binghamton were accused of not doing enough to keep protesters from disrupting appearances by conservative speakers on campuses, Hartle said.
The Education Department last month also announced an investigation of how Binghamton handled a protest last year, in which conservative economist Arthur Laffer was shouted down during an appearance.
In a Sept. 15 letter to campus president Harvey Stenger informing him about the investigation, the Education Department said it is concerned that “Binghamton's many representations about free speech and student conduct to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may be false, erroneous, or misleading.”
Last week, ACE and other higher education groups wrote Trump protesting his executive order barring universities and other entities receiving federal funding from doing racial sensitivity training that includes “divisive” viewpoints, like arguing the “U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist.” The group told Trump the order would undermine efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, which are “essential to the long-term strength, economic competitiveness, and security of our nation.”
“It is also the right thing to do. The recent tragedies of racial violence underscore now, more than ever, the importance of vigorous efforts to address racism and injustice and to promote diversity and inclusion, as Americans strive together to create a more perfect union,” the groups said.
And, Hartle said, such moves aimed at university policies would probably continue in a second term.
Hartle worried as well that a second Trump administration would continue to try to restrict international students from going to U.S. colleges, such as it tried to do last year when it ordered but then dropped a requirement that international students be allowed in the country only if they are taking a full, in-person course load.
"If President Trump is re-elected, we can expect an escalation of a set of tactics that his administration has already deployed to drive forward an ideological agenda on campuses,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America's campus program director for campus free speech.
“The logical conclusion is that in a second term we will see these efforts ramp up, meaning more politically motivated investigations, more stifling of international exchange and more worrying retaliations against academic leaders and faculty who oppose or criticize the Trump agenda,” Friedman said. “Equally worrisome, we could see greater retaliation against scientists, public health experts and universities, if their views of COVID-19 pandemic contradict the narratives favored by the president.”
But others who have been concerned about conservative thought being stifled on campuses they see as dominated by liberals take hope that the administration will continue to take actions in cases like the one at SUNY Binghamton. “Shout downs and free speech zones and bias response teams must be dealt with -- if not by university leaders, then expect Washington to do so,” said Jonathan Butcher, senior fellow at the conservative think tanks the Goldwater Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
The lawsuit against Yale also drew praise from some, like Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing Harvard over its admissions policies. The case is likely headed to the Supreme Court, which will likely take a more conservative slant after the expected confirmation of Trump’s nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett.
“For too long, agencies of the federal government have turned a blind eye to the blatant discrimination directed against Asian Americans and whites in college admissions policies,” Blum said.
Aside from those issues, Trump, if he is re-elected, will still likely be facing the coronavirus pandemic and its recession, Stein, TICAS's senior adviser, said.
Trump, for example, extended a moratorium on student loan borrowers from having to make payments through the end of the year. Trump, who will still be in office when the calendar mercifully turns from 2020, will have to decide whether to keep excusing borrowers from paying back their loans.
Eventually when borrowers are required to make payments again, Trump's or any administration will have to decide whether to phase it in, given many will still be struggling financially in the midst of the recession, Stein said.
The administration and Congress may still be negotiating another coronavirus aid package. On Tuesday, Trump announced on Twitter that he was walking away from talks with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over another stimulus bill. Then, a few hours later, without mentioning additional help for colleges or universities, Trump tweeted that he’d consider a limited package that would give Americans another stimulus check and help airlines and small businesses.
Before the back-and-forth that left the status of another bill in confusion, negotiations between House Democrats and the White House appeared to be headed toward giving colleges far less help than the $120 billion, at a minimum, in aid ACE and other groups representing institutions said is needed.
The administration had been proposing in the talks with Pelosi including about $120 billion in aid, but for all of education. The White House hadn’t specified how that would be divided between K-12 and colleges, higher education lobbyists said. House Democrats were only calling for another $39 billion in aid for higher education.
Pushing Alternatives to College
Though not directly related to higher education, observers like David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, said Trump would likely keep pushing ideas like expanding work-based learning and apprenticeships, after making it easier to grant certification based on competencies instead of the traditional requirements to complete a certain number of course hours.
Offering alternatives to going to traditional college plays with Trump’s base, who are more likely to not have gotten a higher education. That's led to "some exaggerated perceptions of difference" between community colleges and those focused on a more traditional four-year education, he said. But the workforce emphasis has reflected the role of community colleges, Baime said.
In addition to removing having a college degree as a requirement for some federal jobs, the Labor Department last year began the rule-making process to allow industries to set standards to allow for the creation of more apprenticeships in their fields.
“We can expect a lot of rhetoric about the importance of workers and job training,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of New America’s Center on Education and Skills.
“But will they do more than that?” she said. “We don’t know.”
It remains to be seen, for instance, if the administration in a second term would devote large amounts of money to create more apprenticeships, she said.
Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, wouldn’t speculate on what Trump might do, but she said he could draw on the ideas put forth last month in a Republican Study Committee report.
The group, among other things, proposed shifting federal funding from traditional four-year programs and toward training that does not require going to college.
“A traditional college education may not provide the best path to success for every student, and in many instances can even negatively impact their lives,” the report said. Young people are often pushed to go to college. But a “‘Bachelor’s-or-Bust’ mentality has been costly, especially for the millions of students who have incurred mountains of personal debt in pursuit of diplomas that return to them little value,” the report said.
Instead, the report recommended shifting money from federal programs like TRIO or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP), which encourage people to go to college, toward programs that help students gain other kinds of job training.
The report, among other things, also proposed removing what it sees as a bias toward getting college degrees, by allowing the use of financial aid programs like Pell Grants for nondegree job training, without increasing the total amount the federal government spends on student aid.
“While Congress cannot change public perception of the trades overnight, it can make a difference on how skilled professions are perceived by ensuring that four-year colleges are not favored over [career and technical education] programs in federal student aid,” the report said.
But some like Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the liberal Center for American Progress, and Laitinen, also worry a second Trump administration could relax rules on colleges.
Both said the administration could relax rules aimed at protecting students from the sudden closure of their college. One requirement that could be relaxed is one in which financially troubled colleges have to submit a letter of credit to show they are viable in order to be able to get federal student aid dollars.
Miller also worried a second Trump administration could “rubber stamp” deals like the University of Arizona’s proposed purchase of Ashford University to create a new online nonprofit institution called the University of Arizona Global Campus.
Even if a second Trump administration were to not embark on any major policy initiatives, it could have an impact simply by doing nothing, particularly if some for-profits resort to again misleading students about the kinds of jobs they could get if they went to the institution.
“They could aggressively not enforce existing law,” Laitinen said. “Let a lot of bad actors get away with bad things.”
Advocates who have been closely watching the prospects of Congress updating the nation’s main higher education law do not expect the Trump administration to push to restart talks between Senate Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats, who may win control of Congress, are expected to push for initiatives like doubling the size of Pell Grants, some form of student debt forgiveness and creating a federal matching grant program to encourage states not to cut higher education funding during the recession.
A second Trump administration probably would not go along, Stein said. “The increased investment that Democrats think are critical in [a new Higher Education Act] are unlikely to be priorities for Republicans in Congress,” she said. However, Trump’s support for pausing student loan payments through the end of the year could mean “some cause for optimism” for him to support programs helping students, Stein said.