How has the Trump administration changed higher education?

President Donald Trump hasn’t said much on the campaign trail or during his last four years in office about his formal plans for the country’s colleges and universities. But significant regulatory shifts have occurred during his tenure. 

Trump’s Education Department rolled back key Obama-era regulations and crafted new rules in their place, including for aspects of accreditation and online learning, as well as how colleges address sexual violence on campus.

Several of the administration’s policies have made it harder for international students to study in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is targeting affirmative action policies at elite universities. And Trump issued executive orders tying research funding to free speech and barring colleges that receive federal funding from conducting certain kinds of diversity training.

Lately, he’s also touted his work with historically Black colleges. Trump signed legislation making permanent a recurring pot of federal funding for the sector, a welcome development. But some HBCU leaders say the changes haven’t won over their support in light of his history of offensive comments about race, The Wall Street Journal reported.

When asked what Trump’s second-term priorities for higher education would be, a White House spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement that the president is committed to ensuring Americans can access affordable education and high-quality, short-term job programs. “Too many colleges and universities are failing in their public mission to expand economic opportunity and prepare students for a family-sustaining career,” the spokesperson wrote.

Here, we look at the last four years for higher education under Trump and what could be ahead for the sector if he wins reelection. 

The ‘rethink’ of higher education

The Ed Department convened a committee last year to negotiate new regulations for a wide-ranging set of issues, including online education, accreditation and protections for faith-based colleges. At the time, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said higher education was “due for a rethink.”

The resulting rules make it easier for college programs to get approved, policy experts say. They also loosen compliance standards for accreditors and give them more leeway over college sanctions. 

DeVos asserted the rules bring the sector into the 21st century. “We rejected the idea that one-size-fits-all solutions make sense in a world where education needs continue to evolve,” DeVos said in a statement last year. “[W]e ended the stranglehold that a system designed when people traveled by horse and buggy continued to have on institutions.”

But some policy experts say the regulations don’t do enough to protect students and may even enable harmful institutions to keep operating. For instance, the rules allow some institutions that haven’t met their accreditors’ standards to stay accredited for longer. 

“This means that students may be attending institutions (that) are likely to shut down in the near future, with very little knowledge,” said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, who worked in the Ed Department during the Obama administration.  

The past several years have been marked by a succession of massive college closures, some of which partly stemmed from the Obama administration’s crackdown on poor-performing for-profit colleges, leaving tens of thousands of students in the lurch. Most recently, a trio of for-profit closures in late 2018 and early 2019 renewed calls for more oversight of the sector. 

The new regulations require financially struggling institutions to craft teach-out plans sooner, which could ease the blow of a closure on students. But experts say this stops short of preventing another major collapse. 

“There are a lot of institutions operating at a very high risk of failure, and accreditors, the department and most states are really not doing anything to try and protect students from potential harm,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, and a former staffer in the Obama Ed Department. 

Others say the new rules could serve student interests.

“It’s hard for me to credit claims that they harm students,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. Instead, Hess contended, the rules will allow colleges to meet more students’ needs by increasing the program options available. 

Rolling back Obama-era regulations

Trump’s Ed Department moved quickly to undo two key Obama-era regulations meant to protect students from predatory colleges: the gainful employment and borrower defense rules. 

DeVos formally repealed the gainful employment rule, which sought to cut federal funding to poor-performing career-education schools, in mid-2019. The department argued it singled out for-profits, which accounted for a disproportionate share of programs that didn’t meet its standard.

The department issued its version of the borrower defense rule later that year. It also holds borrowers to a higher standard when trying to show they were harmed as a result of misrepresentation by their college, in order to have their student loans forgiven. And it gives them less time to file complaints.

The for-profit college industry lauded the changes. And Hess argued they hold colleges liable if they rip off students, while still blocking some “dubious or overbroad claims.” 

The new rules only apply to loans made on or after July 2020, so the impacts will become more apparent over time. But McCann argued students seeking relief face more immediate problems.

The Ed Department agreed to process a backlog of roughly 170,000 debt cancellation requests to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by students waiting for decisions on their claims. However, a federal judge nixed the settlement agreement last week after the agency revealed it has rejected 94% of claims reviewed since April, The Washington Post reported

“Borrowers have been forced to turn to the courts, time and time again, on borrower defense,” McCann said. “That’s how much the Trump administration doesn’t want to approve claims for people who have legitimate claims.”

A new era of transparency and accountability? 

The department has argued that transparency about student outcomes, instead of regulations, is the best way to help prevent students and their families from picking poorly performing colleges. 

Trump signaled his support for that idea in 2019 when he signed an executive order directing the department to include more data in the College Scorecard. 

This online tool helps families compare features of higher education institutions such as cost. The revamped website now includes program-level data on student outcomes, including graduates’ debt levels and earnings.

Policy experts agree the move is a step in the right direction. Still, Hess and others noted that more comprehensive data could improve it. And McCann argued it shouldn’t be the only tool used to hold colleges accountable. 

“Data alone is not sufficient to protect students from making bad choices,” McCann said, contending the department’s deregulatory agenda will make it easier for programs with poor student outcomes to proliferate. “What we really saw from the Trump administration was a commitment to data transparency, yes, but at the expense of actual accountability.” 

Turning the corner on Title IX

Colleges scrambled to stand up new Title IX policies to meet the requirements laid out in the Ed Department’s new regulations governing sexual misconduct, which were released in May and became effective in August. 

The rule narrows the definition of sexual harassment, allows both parties to cross-examine each other through surrogates and blocks colleges from investigating a matter unless an official complaint exists. It also gives the accused the right to an adviser and to see the evidence against them. 

Title IX cases have been a minefield for colleges. According to one recent analysis, the number of students suing universities over how they handled their cases has skyrocketed in the last several years. It also found state and federal courts ruled against colleges more than half the time in cases that resulted in “substantive decisions.”

Proponents of the new rule say it protects the due process rights of the accused. Critics say it creates a quasi-judicial system of addressing sexual misconduct on campus and limits colleges’ ability to look into potential sexual violence cases. 

However, legal experts have said colleges, already beleaguered by the pandemic, weren’t given enough time to adapt to the new regulations.

What’s next? 

The Trump administration’s recent actions may offer clues into the higher education priorities that would define a second term. 

It recently proposed student visa restrictions and blocked new international students from coming to the U.S. if their studies are predominantly online because of the coronavirus. And new restrictions on foreign workers could further deter international students. These follow a long line of policies that have made the country less welcoming to international students, experts say. More barriers to their enrollment could be coming

Meanwhile, the Justice Department recently sued Yale University, alleging it discriminates against its Asian and White applicants. And Trump signed an executive order in September barring federally supported programs from conducting certain diversity training. 

The administration’s recent actions concerning free speech and racial discrimination suggests it may “spend a second term stoking some of these culture wars,” McCann said. “But surely we haven’t seen much from the campaign in terms of what the platform would be.”

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