In the wake of this month’s hearing on campus antisemitism, Republicans in Congress want elite colleges and universities to pay—one way or another. Over the past week, they’ve proposed bills to end federal student loans to the wealthiest private colleges, to levy new taxes and to restrict institutions’ diversity, equity and inclusion policies. And the list will likely grow in the new year.
The growing hostility in Congress toward higher education, particularly elite institutions, represents a shift that could mean more legislation designed to change colleges and universities’ operations and governance, increase federal oversight and accountability, and impose budget cuts, experts said. House Republicans had already proposed zeroing out the budgets for Federal Work-Study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which sends money to low-income students who qualify.
With a presidential election year ahead, the pressures are likely to only ramp up in 2024.
“There’s certainly a lot of elected officials who want to be seen as being tough on colleges and universities,” said Jon Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education. “They see [it] to their electoral advantage.”
Conservative concerns about higher education have been brewing for years. But they didn’t reach a critical mass until the response on some college campuses to the Israel-Hamas war—including student protests in support of the people of Palestine and a rise in antisemitic incidents—inflamed lawmakers, alumni, donors and some Jewish students. House Republicans blamed DEI policies for a rise in antisemitism and pointed a finger more broadly to the cultures of the universities.
“Watching campuses serve as a backdrop for rallies that seemed to have nothing to do with learning or research or education and everything to do for apologizing for a terrorist assault offended sensibilities of Republicans who would sit out this debate,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination next year, has sought to capitalize on the moment, along with members of Congress. In early November, referencing the campus protests, he announced a plan to create a free national online college—funded with taxes on wealthy private universities—where “wokeness or jihadism” would not be allowed. Then, over the weekend, he pledged to end tax exemptions for universities that, in his view, discriminate against conservatives, Christians and Jews and that “attack free speech.”
“They will pay us billions and billions of dollars for the terror they have unleashed into our once-great country,” Trump said at a campaign rally in New Hampshire.
The Dec. 5 hearing on campus antisemitism featuring the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology elicited bipartisan outrage. In particular, it was the presidents’ failure to clearly say that calling of the genocide of Jewish people would violate their campus policies that prompted the most outrage. Some also found parts of their testimony condescending and evasive.
“The hearing was like lighting a match in a room full of oxygen,” Hess said. “The conditions had been set for this kind of blowback.”
Hess expects to see more legislation focused on university endowments or DEI policies, similar to what Texas representative Dan Crenshaw proposed Monday. His bill would end federal funding to institutions that require students to write DEI statements.
“The gloves have come off,” Hess said. For Republicans, “the sense that you can work sensibly with institutions of higher education is in the rearview mirror.”
Hess acknowledged that the increase in legislation and oversight “will be experienced by colleges as hostile.” But, he said, Republican lawmakers are “responding to unavoidable provocation.” That includes instances of shouting down or disinviting conservative speakers and shrugging off concerns about DEI programs and policies.
Over all, Hess said, conservatives believe that higher education is contemptuous of the right. So when the college presidents defended their commitment to free expression at the hearing, their defense struck Hess and other Republicans as the “worst kind of dishonesty.”
Hess said the hearing and the Biden administration’s efforts to provide student loan forgiveness, which Republicans say is an abuse of executive power, have created a “sea change” in how higher education policy is viewed in Congress.
“Higher ed is now seen on the right as oil companies are seen on the left—a problematic, self-serving industry,” Hess said.
‘A Lot of Chaos’
Hess thinks that what’s happened in higher education since Oct. 7 represents a new normal in terms of congressional scrutiny. But Fansmith at ACE doesn’t agree, though he’s concerned.
“The moment will probably pass at some point and this will reset, but there’s a lot of electoral politics happening,” Fansmith said. “Colleges and universities are vulnerable as targets for these attacks.”
Fansmith said the events on campuses following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack have been a flash point that magnified the long-standing conservative concerns and criticism regarding higher education.
“It took the kind of public attention–grabbing events, like we saw following Oct. 7, to really get people focused on this,” he said. “There was a lot of both reasonable and unreasonable criticism of higher education that’s been out there in the world for a while now, so it’s not a shock that when the public cares more, the people who are responding to the public will amp up what they’re saying.”
He expects to see more "messaging bills" about higher education, some of which would carry significant consequences if passed. Bills targeting elite institutions—such as the one introduced last week by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, that would levy a one-time 6 percent tax on 10 universities’ endowments—likely will proliferate.
“You’ll see a lot of people who don’t spend a lot of time in the higher education space weighing in,” Fansmith said.
Although the bills are unlikely to become law in 2024 with divided control of Congress, there’s a broader concern about the knock-on effects of the legislative attacks—and the potential for the policy ideas to resonate after the election if Republicans take control of the White House and Congress.
“There’s a lot of heat around this subject right now,” Fansmith said. At the moment, “What that translates into is going to be a lot of noise, a lot of chaos, a lot of attention, but probably not a lot of actual policy.”