Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 11.
Higher ed could be in for an extreme make-over once President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January. Trump has made some substantive remarks on policy. How they will be implemented are as yet a mystery.
While providing no details, Trump has, on more than one occasion, said that he wants to abolish the Department of Education (ED). It would be a radical--and according to higher ed experts--improbable task, something Trump couldn't do with just the stroke of a pen.
"Donald Trump cannot unilaterally eliminate the U.S. Department of Education," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com. "It is a cabinet-level department that was established by the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 and began operating on May 4, 1980. The legislation carved it out from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare." Eliminating ED would require an Act of Congress.
"It isn't entirely clear what he intends," Kantrowitz continued. "At times he's talked about eliminating the Department entirely, while at others he's talked about cutting its budget. Most of the talk about abolishing the U.S. Department of Education has been in the context of K-12 education, mostly with regard to school choice. Perhaps he would shift some K-12 funding into block grants to the states or a voucher system," or eliminate Common Core and other national standards for local schools.
Although Trump has said "there is so much waste" at ED, it is efficient by federal standards. ED staffers number about 5,000, the lowest headcount among cabinet level departments. Any savings from a shutdown, Kantrowitz said, "would be a drop in the bucket."
"A Trump administration alone cannot abolish the Department of Education," said Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst at Demos, a New York City-based think tank, "but it could absolutely hollow out its civil rights and Title IX enforcement powers. We know that addressing college affordability is a bipartisan priority, and that there is a difference of opinion on the root causes of the crisis between the parties."
Would reducing the dependence on student loans be in step with Trump's Make America Great Again view of the world? Huelsman added, "Voters generally believe that students should be able to work their way through college again without taking on debt, and it will be interesting to see if a Trump Administration or new Congress responds to those values."
Trump has been promoting accountability in government across the board. When it comes to higher ed, however, Kantrowiz noted that "it would be hard to do this without the oversight of the U.S. Department of Education. Some functions might be shifted to other agencies--he's talked about moving student loans to the Treasury Department, but also talked about eliminating the federal role in student loans. Where would the Pell Grants go? What would happen to the funding for 490,000 K-12 public school teachers? Funding for disabled children?"
Kantrowitz noted, "Most likely he would cut funding for some programs, shift some funding into block grants for the states, and shift some functions to other federal agencies, without eliminating the U.S. Department of Education entirely." Simplifying the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and the elimination of redundant programs such as the federal Perkins Loan could be on tap.
"So far, most of Donald Trump's higher education proposals have focused on student loans," Kantrowitz said. "He has proposed ending the Direct Loan program. He wants colleges to have skin in the game with regard to student loan defaults. He has proposed a variation on current income-driven repayment plans as a replacement for all student loan repayment plans, where borrowers pay 12.5% of income for 15 years. It's unclear whether that means gross income or discretionary income."
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spared over the merits of debt free college and flat-out free tuition at public colleges. "Trump has opposed free public college tuition," Kantrowitz said. "He wants colleges to spend more of their endowments on cutting tuition. He has said that colleges suffer from administrative bloat that could be cut to save money. He has supported rolling back regulations that contribute to college costs due to the cost of compliance."
An influence that may be out of Trump's hands in the near is the interest rate environment; interest on federal student loans are synched with the 10-year Treasury note. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, a dove on interest rates, is expected to hike them eventually, if not in December. Her term does not end until February 2018. Early in his campaign, Trump described himself as a "low-interest rate person," but come the end expressed concern about a bubble fueled by cheap money.
It's unclear who will be behind the wheel in Trump's drive to overhaul higher ed. Trump may go with a mix of new blood and GOP stalwarts--the House the Senate would be obvious places to look. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), current chair of the Help Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee, will likely remain in that position. But he could also be on Trump's list of potential Secretaries of Education.
"Senator Lamar Alexander understands the need for the U.S. Department of Education, having once served as Secretary of Education," said Kantrowitz. "He also works well with Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and can be a source of bipartisanship, which will be needed to move Trump's education agenda forward. He is a strong proponent of simplifying the FAFSA and cutting unnecessary regulations. If Donald Trump is smart, he will rely on Sen. Alexander as a source of advice and insight.
"We don't have a lot of details on what a Trump administration would do in higher education, although he has made statements about shutting down the Department of Education," said Rory O'Sullivan, deputy director of the Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for Millennials. "Doing so would have catastrophic consequences for students across the country, cutting off access to needs-based grants and loans for millions."
The Department of Education declined to comment about ED policy in a Trump administration—or the prospects for an ED shutdown. "You'll have to ask the president-elect's transition team those questions," said ED press secretary Dorie Nolt. A Trump spokesperson could not be reached for comment.