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Policy Analysis

What Will the Trump Presidency Mean for Education?

Disturbingly little is known with any certainty about President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s plans for education. Even credible speculation is difficult, given that Trump is far from a traditional Republican and that his statements on a range of issues have proved somewhat inconsistent over the last year or so. But one thing is certain for a Trump presidency backed by a Republican-dominated Congress: Education policy is going to move in a new direction.

Affordability and Accountability

Trump said he wants to make college more affordable. He has criticized the spending decisions made by colleges and universities with “multi-billion dollar endowments.” In a Sept. 22 speech in Pennsylvania, he said endowment spending should focus on students.

According to a Washington Post account of the speech: “Instead these universities use the money to pay their administrators, to put donors’ names on their buildings, or just store the money, keep it and invest it. In fact, many universities spend more on private-equity fund managers than on tuition programs…. But they should be using the money on students, for tuition, for student life and for student housing. That’s what it’s supposed to be for.”

Trump has pledged to work with Congress to pressure institutions with large endowments to spend more on students — or take their tax-exempt status away. "[Trump and policy adviser Sam Clovis] have called for lowering tuition, cutting administrative expenses and enforcing greater accountability with respect to endowment spending at tax-exempt colleges and universities to ensure that money is being invested in student success," noted Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities. President-Elect Trump has also been among those proposing income-based student loan repayment plans. "These broad proposals are intended to address wide-spread criticism, particularly among Trump’s Republican colleagues, that higher education is too expensive, too difficult to access, and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills."

Trump also said, “The students are choking on those loans. They can’t pay them back. Before they start, they’re in trouble. And it’s something I hear more and more and it’s one of the things I hear more than anything else.”

Changes in student loan policy could lead to reduced college enrollment, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. In a Medium post today, she predicted, “Federal student loan origination will be returned to private banks. Underwriting will be introduced in the name of reducing student debt —  which it will accomplish, but only by reducing college enrollment. College prices won’t fall, but fewer people will have debt and no degree because they simply didn’t attend college.”

For-Profits and the Higher Ed Mission

Higher education leaders have been quick to point to the for-profit realm as an area of concern. For-profit institutions have long been plagued with legal and regulatory troubles related to student loans and employability of graduates, and Trump University in particular is currently facing accusations of fraud in a class-action civil trial. Gardner Campbell, associate professor of English and special assistant to the provost, Virginia Commonwealth University, and longtime higher ed tech thought leader, told Campus Technology:

“President-elect Trump has often spoken of the value of his own education at one of the nation’s finest universities, the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a degree in economics. At the same time, the ‘university’ that bears his name, Trump University, has been repeatedly sued for allegedly fraudulent business practices. The story of Trump University must give everyone in nonprofit higher education grave concerns about how Mr. Trump views the mission we serve. At the same time, Secretary Clinton rightly observes that ‘We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.’

“For more perspective, I encourage readers to consult Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s essay ‘Higher Education Under Trump,’ published today on Medium.”

In her essay, Goldrick-Rab predicts that with Trump in the White House, “America will be ‘open for business’ when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges and universities . This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal. Witness: Trump University.”

Bryan Alexander, consultant and host of the Future Trends Forum video chat series, told Campus Technology, “I think Goldrick-Rab is onto something. The GOP now holds the House, the Senate, and the White House. They can put into place many policies. The free market is their nominal guide, so it makes sense for them to support for-profits. The only obstacle is that that sector has been crashing and burning. I don't know if it can regrow for a while.”

Moving Forward

Alexander also pointed to a potential silver lining: “An emphasis on regrowing American manufacturing could lead to several outcomes: more support for makerspaces; a push for German/Swiss-style apprenticeship programs; pressure for K–12 to return to vocational tech; support for technical colleges.”

Many educators are simply looking for ways to help students digest the course of events and move forward. On Twitter, Malinda Matney, director of assessment at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan, pointed followers to CRLT’s resources for responding to difficult discussions or controversial topics in the classroom — including how to handle teaching and learning in a tense election season: “Difficult discussions are going to happen in classrooms across the country. How can you be ready?” And as Justin Wolfers, professor of economics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and professor of public policy in the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, quipped, “With a roomful of bleary-eyed students waiting for me this morning, my message will be: There's no better time to learn economics.”

The AAC&U's Pasquerella emphasized the importance of restoring public trust in higher education: "The theme of AAC&U’s annual meeting in January, to be held on the heels of the inauguration, is restoring public trust in liberal education and inclusive excellence," she noted. "I have argued that we need to return to the notion of higher education as a public good rather than as a private commodity. Quality and equity in higher education, as opposed to just completion, must be made a national priority. And yet, there has been a disinvestment in public higher education that threatens to exacerbate a growing economic segregation in our society. We must all work together to provide models for partnering with K-12, business, industry, government, and each other in championing our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy." 

A Smaller Role for ED in K–12?

Trump’s statements on education are few and far between. He has declared he would “get rid of” Common Core. And he’s implied he’d eliminate or pare down the federal Department of Education.

But are these two positions mutually exclusive?

Common Core State Standards are, of course, state-level standards. But the incentive to adopt the standards came in no small part from a competitive grant program developed and administered by the U.S. Department of Education — Race to the Top. States that pledged to adopt the standards were awarded bonus points in their application evaluations for the high-stakes grants. The Education Department also tied waivers for NCLB to Common Core adoption. Presumably, then, some sort of incentive program would also be required to push states to back away from Common Core now that they have invested so heavily in both curriculum and testing.

Ed Tech Is an Unknown

The growth of the education technology sector has been fueled in no small part by the education reform movement. While the ed reform movement doesn’t fit tidily into any particular political milieu, its proponents do tend to lean Republican in these regards: They favor an increased role of the private sector in public education; they tend to favor school choice; they’re highly supportive of charter school expansion; they like the idea of connecting student test scores with teacher evaluations; and, on the rare occasion when they speak of teachers’ unions, they tend to be somewhat unflattering in their language. For example, the Center for Education Reform, or CER, issued a statement last month deriding unions for obstructing charter school expansion. That organization also applauded Donald Trump for referring to school choice as the “civil rights issue of our time.”

In a statement issued this morning, CER congratulated Trump on his election and added, “President-elect Trump — We believe there is much you can do to address the hopes and dreams of all who elected you. We hope you will embrace innovation, applaud and incentivize ambitious state efforts to create opportunity for all learners at all levels, reject the status quo and think hard about all those you appoint to support you and the needs of citizens everywhere.”

Kecia Ray, chair of the ISTE board of directors and executive director of the Center for Digital Education, said:

“Education is fundamental to our society and technology is increasingly becoming a fundamental tool in education. The U.S. Department of Education Office of Education Technology provides exceptional resources and support to districts and universities and I am in high hopes this work will continue through the transition to President-Elect Trump's new administration. As a nation, we must focus on education in order to improve the prospects of our future, and to that end we must work together to ensure all students have the opportunity to live successful and prosperous lives beyond their school experience.”

Mainstream Republican and Democratic legislators and the last two Presidents have backed technology investments in education, and that doesn’t look like it will be changing anytime soon. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues to provide substantial federal funding for education technology. (See a roundup of technology provisions in ESSA here.) And, according to reporting in Education Week, one of Trump’s transition leaders, Gerard Robinson, noted that Trump likely won’t take a heavy hand in ESSA’s rollout.

Julie Evans, CEO of the education nonprofit Project Tomorrow, focused on the potential opportunity for schools and districts she sees:

“We know that all sustainable change happens at the local level — schools and districts working with their local community partners and parents to improve learning experiences and opportunities for all children and youth. That will probably not change. In fact, there may even be a stronger emphasis on the value of local control in education decisions. Given that, there may be a re-direction for local school districts to accelerate their efforts and programs to address some difficult issues that are impacting their students and families such as the homework gap or the effective use of digital tools to address the achievement gap with highly localized solutions. Our K–12 leaders will be looking for guidance to support those efforts and that will place a new responsibility on the nonprofit and research sectors, both locally and nationally, to help with those efforts by providing best practices, facilitating convenings to bring stakeholders together and to do research such as Speak Up to inform and guide local decisions.”

School Choice & Teachers’ Unions

Trump has expressed a certain amount of hostility toward teachers’ unions and has promoted the idea of school choice, as well as the expansion of charter schools, as ways to break away from their influence, improve student achievement on the National Assessment of Education Progress and level up the ranking of the United States in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). (The United States currently ranks 18th in reading and 28th in math out of 34 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers PISA.)

For their part, those unions, in particular the National Education Association, have issued scathing statements about Trump during the campaign period. NEA, for example, issued this statement following the first presidential debate: “NEA President Lily Eskelsen García swiftly praised Hillary Clinton for ably exposing Donald Trump as unfit for office during tonight’s first presidential debate while cohesively presenting a clear, positive vision to move the country forward as tens of millions of Americans watched. Eskelsen García also emphasized that Trump failed students’ and educators’ positive role model test.”

NEA also issued several statements decrying Trump’s “bullying” behavior, degradation of women, “hate rhetoric” and pro-gun stance. Trump has said on several occasions that he would “get rid of gun-free zones,” including those at schools.

The American Federation of Teachers has echoed NEA’s stance. On Sept. 8, AFT issued a statement that read, in part: “The more you hear Trump talk about the issues, the more profoundly clear it becomes that he is completely unfit to be president.”

How such open hostility will come back to haunt these organizations is unclear. Unions in all sectors have not fared particularly well under either Democrats or Republicans over the last 16 years. And in education in particular, both the Bush and Obama administrations have pushed forward agendas that have attempted to skirt teachers’ unions, particularly the expansion of charter schools.

Diane Ravitch, a prominent advocate for teachers’ unions and opponent of many efforts of education reformers, said she was “shocked” by the result of the presidential election and noted in her blog early this morning, “This will be a boon for charter operators and for-profit entrepreneurs, and we can expect to see religious groups reach out for federal funding. But ultimately the decision about how to spend these block grants is in the hands of the states, a power strengthened by the new federal law, ESSA.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, for her part, released a cautious but struggling-to-be-positive statement late this morning in response to the election results. It reads, in part:

“... Throughout this campaign, Donald Trump promised to fix the rigged economy. He promised to restore America’s middle class, to bring back the country’s manufacturing and industrial base, and to restore dignity and opportunity for Americans — values that we as trade unionists understand intimately. He said last night that he would bring the country together — something that is essential, given the bullying and bigotry unleashed in this election. And as unionists, we will work tirelessly to ensure that all people can reach for their dreams, economically, educationally and otherwise.

“We believe deeply in our democracy. We accept the will of the people, and, as Hillary Clinton said today, we owe President-Elect Trump the chance to lead. We will also hold him accountable for the promises he made to restore the sense of greatness and opportunity that too many Americans feel they have lost, while at the same time we will continue the fight for everyone’s liberties.


“Though heartbroken at this result, this was about economic change and a yearning for change, not an undermining of all things we hold dear like public schools. Across the country in local races — from ballot initiatives in Georgia and Massachusetts, to school boards in New Orleans and Corpus Christi, to levies that will support schools in Cincinnati, Cleveland and the San Francisco Community College District, to Proposition 55 in California and much more — voters chose to lift up and protect the institution of public education. Our members across the country worked hard not just for Hillary, but for their local schools, their hospitals, their public services — and many prevailed….”

As of this writing, NEA has yet to issue a statement on the Trump victory.

Where Trump has been clear — even uncharacteristically specific — is on the issue of school choice. He has called for a $20 billion federal “investment” in (or, rather, re-prioritization of federal funds for) school choice. Those funds, coupled with state-supplied funds on the order of $110 billion, according to Trump’s articulated “education vision,” would be used to “provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every K-12 student who today lives in poverty,” allowing those students to attend public or private schools of their parents’ choosing.

This article will be updated as new information becomes available. [Note: This story was updated on Nov. 10 to include statements from the Association of American College & Universities.]


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