Higher Ed Policy After the Election

BY CHRISTOPHER NEWFIELD

The following piece is reposted with permission from Remaking the University, a blog sponsored by Michael Meranze, professor of history at UCLA, and Christopher Newfield, professor of English at UC Santa Barbara.

trumpelectionhouseofhorrorsnydailynewsIt’s tempting to see higher education as a sideshow in the upheaval that Donald J. Trump’s election presents for every arena of national concern–literally every arena, from global warming to Middle East war, from immigration to mass surveillance, from nuclear disarmament to police reform, from Native rights to job creation, etc etc.  But this list needs to include higher ed.  The Trump victory buried Clintonism, which furnished universities’ business model for the last twenty five years.  Higher ed now has to reinvent its relationship to the general public.

I’ll discuss this new public relationship in a separate post. Here I’ll focus on some likely effects, gleaned in part from very interesting presentations and conversations with higher ed scholars, advocates, administrators and activists at the ASHE convention in Columbus this past week.

First, the promised Trump crackdown on immigration will increase disruption to undocumented students, students of color, LGBTQ students, women students, and Muslim students.  Incidents began the night of the election: see Scott Jaschik’s Friday overview and his update today, the Verge’s report on the adding of University of Pennsylvania students to a racist GroupMe chat based in Oklahoma, the overview of a racialized town-gown altercation in Oberlin, OH, among many others. On Sunday, Donald J. Trump asked his followers to “stop it,” though he went on to blame the media, and has not issued a categorical statement like the one David Halperin wrote for him. 

Also on Sunday, Mr. Trump repeated his campaign promise to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants.  We’ve heard of several universities that are planning official statements in support of undocumented students and others who are being threatened with insults, degradation, or violence.  Universities must defend their students against these attacks.   But they will also need to plan for the fact that this puts them in stark opposition to a key strategy of the president-elect.

Second, Mr. Trump doesn’t much care about higher education.  This increases the chances that he will farm out its policy to Congress and/or to party stalwarts looking for a grudge match against the sector.  At ASHE, two people who advocate for higher ed in Washington, D.C., said he probably would not close the Department of Education.  It holds $1.3 trillion in student loan assets, for one thing, and it would cost tens of billions of dollars to unwind.  (I assume that makes it a honey pot for privatizers in an administration headed by a master of corporate access to public subsidies, but I haven’t figured out how this would work.)

Assuming there will be a Secretary of Education, a few names have come up: Sen. Lamar Alexander is the dean of Republicans higher ed policymakers.  Presidential candidate Ben Carson is rumored to want the job.  The New York Times also listed Williamson M. Evers, a Hoover fellow whom I thought of more as a K-12 crank, though that may be a point in his favor.  Purdue president Mitch Daniels has denied he is being considered for a cabinet position, but has a developed higher ed model and blogosphere supporters.  The Trump Administration could give a nonpriority area like education to longtime activists to use for ideological target practice.

Third, since Donald Trump already has plenty of targets, he’ll more likely just make higher ed “open for business.”   I’ll expand on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s list of possible Trump higher ed priorities.

  • Neo-states-rights higher ed would be out of the reach of federal enforcement, which has been regulating public and private universities’ responses to problems like racial hate crimes and sexual assault.
  • Gutting Obama-era regulations on for-profit colleges.  Jonathan Fansmith of ACE noted that for the first time in years, Credit Suisse has shifted its recommendation on for-profit college stocks to “buy.”  Look for more use of the for-profit sector to excuse cuts in public funding that in turn benefit for-profits (for the UK Tory precedent, see Andrew McGettigan’s early overview). Expect to see more enrollments and revenues in the higher ed sector with the world record for worst degree outcomes at the highest student cost.
  • Returning a big piece of student loans to private banks.   Since new increases in the student loan burden will be unpopular in both main parties, various alt-finance schemes will be floated.  The Big 3 are
    • Income-contingent loan repayment plans (touted for expansion under the Obama administration).  These are better than no-cap repayment. The UK experience shows they require off-book public subsidies–when students don’t have to repay because they don’t have high enough incomes, they effectively default and the government covers it. New loan repayment schemes also drive out the goal of no loans to pay back in the first place.
    • Institutional risk-sharing. The idea here is that colleges help their graduates pay back loans when the graduates don’t earn enough in the workforce to pay back their loans on their own.  An advocate, Sen. Alexander, says that the idea is to “ensure that colleges have some responsibility” to get students to “borrow wisely.”  One practical effect would be for universities to reduce their own repayment risk by funneling students into majors with higher average future earnings.  This would, over time, mean cutting other majors.  Arts and humanities would be first in line for cuts.
    • Income-share agreements, in which an investor gives a student a portion of their college costs in exchange for a share of their future income.  Repayment periods are finite (say 9 years) and repayment amounts are capped at a multiple of the original loan (say 2.5x, in the Purdue example that the Wall Street Journal has recommended).   In addition to the indentureship element, the plan seeks to tie the value of a major to its private market return on investment.

This businessing of higher ed is not new, but the Donald J. Trump Administration (DJTA) is likely to produce a difference in kind through a massive intensification of degree. The shared theme is the completion of current trends towards marketization, with escalated privatization as the means.

Mitch Daniels, the former Eli Lilly executive and Indiana governor who is now president of Purdue University, has put together the common sense version of the model, called “Purdue Moves.”  I encourage you to read the short post about it at the conservative blog The American Thinker.  The model mixes a populist concern with affordability via tuition freezes together with budget cuts, continuous assessment, return on investment (ROI) metrics, incentives to force students and universities to maximize ROI, a general critique of universities as delivering little, and a dogwhistled neo-culture war on faculty and students who are said to criticize injustice because they won’t perform. In the DJTA, the service populism of Michael Crow’s New American University will lose out to the corporate populism of Mitch Daniels.  This may be the best-case DJTA scenario.

In short, educational and research goals will be more fully subordinated to financial ones than any time in modern history.  This will mean a massive curbing of the academic freedom of students and faculty, with tenure-track faculty experiencing the pressures non-tenure-track faculty have known from the start. This will include curbing the freedom of students, even as they pay more than ever, to pursue a major suited to their individual needs, wants, and academic strengths. Forcing the nation’s brilliant future poets, journalists, sociologists, and historians into biology and mech E is the height of human inefficiency, and universities will accept it at their peril.

The likely default plan is for senior managers to up the ROI focus they already have.  One example comes from Ohio State University, which I discovered while preparing to lecture there last week. The university reports on research showing that the ROI of a college degree is higher now than it was in previous decades. The page states that total financial benefits exceed total individual costs. They (the PR authors, not the scholars who did the research) then draw these conclusions:

This list teaches students and their parents to look down on less selective colleges (their problem is poverty not open access), avoid non-STEM majors, and to define college study in employment terms. It obliterates over half of the calculable value of the university, which is non-market, indirect, and social, and ignores the sociocultural, psychological, and regional contributions that universities make to public life. And yet the response to the DJTA could be the multiplication of outreach to the public that reduces the value of the higher education they are trying to defend.

Universities that respond to the new situation by doubling down on private market and ROI justifications will also intensify rather than redirecting the negative pressures I’ve described.  That is to repeat The Great Mistake.

I’ll say more about the better, pro-public justifications in a subsequent post.

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