Where Donald Trump Stands on Higher Education, Latest Revealed by His Advisors

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on May 25, 2016 at 10:36 am
Where Donald Trump Stands on Higher Education, Latest Revealed by His Advisors

With the Republican presidential nomination seemingly wrapped up, business mogul Donald Trump was able to defeat all of his rivals without ever really discussing his views on higher education.

Now on the cusp of a general election battle with two Democratic candidates who have made student debt and college access core components of their campaign message, Trump is currently in the process of developing the nuts and bolts of his higher education agenda.

The public got its first peek at that agenda last week as Trump’s campaign advisors dished to the media about the candidate’s views on federal student aid, risk-sharing for student debt, the value of liberal arts degrees and a host of other topics. All of this, though, comes with an important caveat: Trump’s campaign has yet to release a formal higher education policy platform. Given the candidate’s record of and propensity to change his views, there’s no real guarantee that everything his advisors floated to the media will survive.

But for now, it’s the closest the public has come to knowing how Trump would approach higher education policy as President. So with his most detailed policy statements to date, it’s time for a comprehensive breakdown of Donald Trump’s higher education platform.

“Unequivocally no” to Democratic tuition-free, debt-free college plans

One of the most notable revelations to come out of an interview with Trump education advisor Sam Clovis was the total rejection of both Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s college debt plans. Both of Trump’s prospective rivals have promised to dramatically pare down the cost of a college degree by sending hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies to state governments. Clovis made his boss’s views on those plans clear by answering “unequivocally no” when asked if the campaign would support either view.

“How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface,” Clovis told Inside Higher Ed.

Public polling shows broad support for the dueling Democratic plans. A 2015 YouGov poll found that majorities of Americans supported the statement that no one should have to borrow money or go into debt to attend a public college (62 percent), while a slimmer plurality expressed support for tuition-free public college (46 percent). When paired with questions about how to pay for it, the picture becomes a bit murkier. A March 2016 Atlantic poll found that support for tuition-free college had risen to 51 percent, but a quarter of those supporters said they were not willing to pay higher taxes in order to accomplish this goal.

When it comes to Republican voters, Trump may be on more solid ground: only 22 percent of self-identified GOP voters back tuition-free college. By race and ethnicity, white Americans (44 percent) express the lowest support for the idea while black (72 percent) and Hispanic (64 percent) voters express the highest.

Age is another important dividing line, with younger Americans more likely to support subsidized college than older Americans at every level. While 64 percent of Millennials back the idea, 52 percent of Generation X, 47 percent of Baby Boomers and just 31 percent of the Silent Generation said the same.

Universities must put some skin in the game

Ensuring that colleges and universities have “skin in the game” when it comes to bearing the risk of student loan default is a popular idea with bipartisan support in Washington. Lamar Alexander, Republican Senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has spoken warmly of the idea during hearings to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Many politicians and organizations across the ideological spectrum have also expressed support for risk-sharing, from Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley to Jeb Bush and The American Enterprise Institute.

Now, we can tentatively add Trump’s name to that list, as Clovis embraced the idea of making all universities that accept federal student aid responsible for a portion of their students’ loans in the event of a default. Supporters like the idea of risk-sharing because they believe it will give colleges and universities a financial incentive to curb irresponsible borrowing and spending practices among their students if they are on the hook for students who don’t succeed after enrolling.

“If colleges and universities have this incentive, it may not only help students make wiser decisions about borrowing, it could help reduce the cost of college — thereby reducing debt,” said Alexander during a Senate hearing last year.

The problem with “skin in the game” proposals is that no one really knows how colleges would react and experts worry that if not crafted carefully, the policy could have unintended consequences. Not all colleges and universities have the same mission or serve the same populations: Ivy League and prominent public and private universities serve high numbers of wealthy, affluent students who often come from the best school districts in the nation. These are the students most likely to graduate, get good jobs and pay off their debts in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, other universities take on students who make for riskier bets. Statistically, those from low-income and minority backgrounds are less likely to graduate and more likely to go into default. In his interview with Inside Higher Ed, Clovis emphasized that all colleges would be subject to risk-sharing and that the risk “needs to be substantial enough to change the way colleges decide whether to admit students and decide which programs they offer.”

Experts worry that making these standards too rigid or punitive will limit access to at-risk populations and incentivize colleges and universities to gravitate towards accepting students from “safer” socioeconomic backgrounds. This, in turn, would only further exacerbate existing college achievement gaps that split by race and income.

While critics believe this may curb access to college for an undefined number of students, supporters of risk-sharing question whether a student is really better off attending college if they are going to default on their loans anyway.

“Should the taxpayer be subsidizing sending kids to go to school to make some people feel warm and fuzzy about themselves when they are in fact consigning these kids to a very, very bad future where they end up getting a job probably no better than had they not gone to college?” said Richard Vedder of the Pope Center on Higher Education Policy.

Re-privatizing student loans

Currently, the federal government acts as the sole direct lender of federal student aid. However, this has only been the case for about six years. Since the 1990’s, private banks using federal funds had traditionally been co-partners in the lending process.

Now, Trump wants to go back to the old system of putting the private sector back in charge, with Clovis stating that “We think [student loans] should be marketplace and market driven.”

It’s worth remembering how the change to direct government lending came about. As the New York Times has documented, dozens of private lenders withdrew from the federal lending process after the 2008 financial collapse, citing the bleak economic conditions and a lack of available capital. Faced with the prospect of denying millions of students federal student aid, the Bush administration intervened and purchased the loans to ensure their availability. In 2010, the Obama administration successfully lobbied Congress to change the law as part of the Affordable Care Act, arguing that private banks were sucking up billions of dollars in fees while providing little in return.

Under direct lending, the government officially makes a profit off of student loans, something Trump has criticized in the past. However, those estimates can vary widely depending on which accounting methods are used and the type of students (graduate vs. undergraduate) considered.

Mum’s the word on for-profits

One area where Clovis declined to elaborate was Trump’s views on regulating for-profit colleges. While commenting that for-profits have “different” business models, Clovis said Trump does not have strong views on the industry and has instead decided to focus on policies that affect public and private nonprofit colleges.

For-profit universities serve less than 2 million of the estimated 20 million students currently attending American colleges. However, they make up an increasing share of the student loan debt problem, with higher overall debt totals, higher rates of delinquency and lower rates of job placement compared to private and public nonprofit universities.

While Clovis’ comments leave room for Trump to add policies related to for-profits later in the campaign, the current silence from Trump’s camp on for-profits appears to stand in contrast to widespread calls for change to this industry.

To date, the closest thing Trump has to a higher education record on for-profits is his stewardship of “Trump University,” the now-shuttered for-profit education limited liability company that is facing two class action lawsuits from disgruntled customers. It’s important to note that Trump University was not accredited nor did students receive federal financial aid to attend. Rather, in the lawsuits, plaintiffs argue they were coached on increasing their credit limits to pay for more Trump University seminars. “The primary lesson Trump University teaches its students is how to spend more money by buying more Trump Seminars,” claimed the lawyer of former plaintiff Tarla Makaeff.

An illiberal view of the liberal arts

Perhaps the most controversial policy that Clovis revealed was Trump’s belief that universities and lenders should use the prospective earnings of certain disciplines to determine whether or not a student is eligible for financial aid. Specifically, Clovis said that Trump wants to structure the financial aid process to make it harder for students to get financial aid if they decide on “esoteric” liberal arts majors with uncertain job prospects after graduation.

“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts, but you are not going to get a job,” Clovis said.

Sheila Bair, President of Washington College, has argued in an op-ed response that while some “esoteric” liberal arts degrees don’t always lead to high-paying jobs, they are essential to creating a healthy and educated body politic.

“We give our graduates analytical skills that will help them continually adapt to an ever-changing global economy, while also a sense of their obligations to contribute and participate in our democratic society,” wrote Bair.

Clovis emphasized that Trump (himself a liberal arts major with a degree in economics) does not believe the discipline as a whole lacks value, but merely that colleges and lenders should take the economic potential of each major into account when making financial aid decisions.

“The liberal arts education is the absolute foundation to success in life, [but] if you choose to major in the liberal arts, there are issues associated with that,” said Clovis.

Trump’s campaign speaking to a different audience

From a political standpoint, perhaps the most striking aspect of Trump’s vision is the extent to which it appears designed to appeal to older Americans who have long since exited the higher education system. On issues like increased state subsidies, college access, for-profit regulation and others, Trump’s views are unlikely to attract many young Millennial voters.

This is not necessarily a surprise. As Clemson professor and GOP political consultant David Woodard told GoodCall back in February, higher education policy is not a driving issue for most Republican voters. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that just one percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents consider education to be the top issue facing the next President, compared to 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. In part, that is probably due to the age of the average Republican voter. “College is going back quite a ways [for most GOP voters],” said Woodard.

While Trump’s policies may not endear him to younger voters, his views, in general, do line up with the older Republican electorate he is hoping to consolidate before November. As the poll data reveals, these voters are more likely to oppose free college and increased higher education spending and have attitudes about topics like free speech and political correctness on campus that are starkly different from the Millennial generation. With younger voters unlikely to support Trump in large numbers anyway, his higher education platform appears to be crafted for a different audience altogether.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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