Trump at 100 days – More shadow than substance for HE

At an October campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee for president, gave his most substantive speech on higher education policy. He suggested a simplification of income-driven repayment plans for student loan borrowers and railed against government regulations – a staple of his campaign.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Trump vowed that if he became president, he would "immediately take steps to drive down college costs by reducing the unnecessary costs of compliance with federal regulations so that colleges can pass on the savings to students in the form of lower tuition".

As President Trump approaches his 100th day in office, several observers say his administration has yet to scratch the surface of setting or pursuing significant higher education policy – let alone achieving success in it. And aside from the offering in October, President Trump has rarely spoken at length about higher education – a trait that is shared by his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

In her first public remarks on post-secondary education following her confirmation, DeVos told a gathering of community college trustees that President Trump’s 100-day action plan "is his contract with the American voter", and that it included the importance of "expanding vocational and technical education". And, by and large, DeVos has stuck to the same formula in speaking about higher education in the time since.

In the absence of a clearly defined policy, however, the Education Department, and the Trump administration writ large, have made moves that directly affect various sectors of higher education. From the White House’s controversial ban on travel to the United States by citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries to the Education Department’s much-criticised unwinding of several Obama-era reforms, there has been no shortage of activity.

But for all of the rollbacks in the department, there has been very little rulemaking. And with a budget blueprint that threatens significant cuts to research funding and federal student aid, administrators, faculty and students on campuses across the country are uncertain about what may be in store for higher education during the Trump administration.

What the administration has done

The step that started the ball rolling on regulatory rollbacks was the 'Dear Colleague’ letter rescinding Obama-era guidance that had required public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches the gender they identify with.

That letter, issued on 22 February, was followed by actions in March that delayed enforcement of the gainful-employment rule and withdrew guidance issued in 2015 that had barred student loan servicers from charging certain fees to borrowers in default.

Also in March, conflict-of-interest surfaced about a pair of the department’s hires.

Most recently, the department earlier this month withdrew a set of memos aimed at reforming student loan servicing to emphasise customer service. On Wednesday, more than 130 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to DeVos asking that she reconsider that action.

"Your decision to rescind these memos – including the guidance making servicers’ past performance and record of compliance with the law the most important non-cost factor in the evaluation," the lawmakers wrote, "will put millions of borrowers and taxpayers at risk".

The letter was one of many that members of Congress have sent the department in recent months, but the department has been slow to respond – if at all. A spokesman for the department said the perceived delay in response was due to the department taking its time to ensure its responses were "accurate and fair".

While much of the activity from the Education Department has been negative in the eyes of many student and borrowers’ advocates, it has not all been. Early in April, the department announced that it would follow through on actions initiated by the previous education secretary, John B King, to restore Pell Grant eligibility to students affected by the sudden closure of their campus, as happened with the for-profit ITT Technical Institutes and Corinthian Colleges.

It also began publishing information on institutions from accrediting agencies using common definitions, making information on accrediting decisions more available and understandable than it was before.

Out of everything the Education Department has faced in the new administration’s first 100 days, perhaps the most notable is the outage of the Internal Revenue Service’s new data-retrieval tool, which, when it works, allows applicants to easily fill out tax data for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA.

The tool, which was taken offline in early March, is expected to be down until at least the fall, as officials work to fix vulnerabilities that may have compromised data on up to 100,000 people.

Lawmakers and consumer organisations have pushed for the department to quickly get the data-retrieval tool functioning again. And the department has held confidential briefings for lawmakers on the status of the tool and the reasons for it being offline.

The department announced steps it had taken to ease some of the burden for FAFSA applicants affected by the outage of the tool last Monday. However, for others affected by the tool’s outage, including those on income-driven loan repayment plans, there has been little aid.

For many observers, however, early signs give few clues in terms of what higher education policy will look like for the next four years.

"It’s hard to say what their focus is, or is going to be, in higher education," said Robert M Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. However, he said, "they have been responsive to some of the big financial players," referring to large loan servicing companies. "I worry about what that might mean going forward, but I’m not sure what it is."

A shift away

Some of the lack of definitive policy may be caused by a lack of planning by President Trump’s close advisers before the election and during the transition period, due to doubts that he would win, as Politico and other news outlets have reported.

Because of the uncertainty, the administration didn’t begin its transition efforts as early as some previous administrations, who had anticipated a victory and had the benefit of conventional Washington players on their transition staffs, said Daniel T Madzelan, assistant vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

The first step to nominating individuals for executive branch positions that require confirmation is announcing the intent to nominate. Madzelan, who worked in various roles in the Education Department for 33 years, told The Chronicle that this is where the Trump administration has had issues.

And the Education Department has not escaped that criticism. Aside from DeVos, only one out of 14 remaining department officials who require Senate confirmation has been announced.

Shireman, of the Century Foundation, who served as deputy under-secretary of education under President Barack Obama, joined Obama’s team during the transition. Any success that the department was able to enjoy early on would not have been possible, Shireman said, if people weren’t in place in various bureaucratic roles early on.

Arne Duncan, who served as secretary of education for most of the Obama administration, was confirmed just hours after Obama was sworn into office. Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, told Duncan at the time: "Obama has made several appointments, and from my view, you are the best."

DeVos, in comparison, faced a rocky confirmation process that required Vice President Mike Pence to cast an unprecedented tie-breaking vote to tilt the scale in her favour.

"I went into it knowing that what happened in the first six months, that’s the time you’re most likely to put something in motion that can succeed," Shireman said. "After that honeymoon period, it can be more difficult."

President Obama’s major focus after taking office in 2009 was pulling the country back from the brink of the financial crisis. And in the stimulus package, which passed in February of that year, members of the Education Department were able to push for some increased funding for Pell Grants – one of their major priorities, Shireman said.

But while the guidance withdrawals are on the radar of Madzelan, of the American Council on Education, he said they are not their primary focus. Instead the group is more concerned with the direct orders that have come from the White House, including the continuing legal fight over President Trump’s travel ban, he said.

What colleges hope for

It’s not just lobbyists who have expressed concern over the policy that has come from the White House in the early days of the Trump era – students, faculty and administrators have as well.

Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts system, said that early moves, such as the travel ban, have directly affected UMass’s campuses, and he worries about what effect it might have on students and faculty going forward.

When President Trump’s initial travel ban took effect, two faculty members at UMass-Dartmouth were detained by US Customs and Border Protection agents while returning from an academic conference in Paris. The professors, both in the college of engineering, are legal, permanent residents of the United States.

"It had a very negative impact on the morale of our faculty and our students," Meehan said. "We collaborate with faculty in other countries around the world – so it has had a very negative impact on the University of Massachusetts."

For Meehan, who is a former member of Congress, the travel ban and President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for agencies that provide research funds to universities, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, go hand in hand.

"I am hopeful that more moderate Republicans in both the Senate and House will stand up to many of these cuts," he said.

Several members of Congress, he said, come from states and districts with major public and private research universities, and they "understand the role research plays, and the role attracting students and faculty around the world plays in making universities great".

And as opposed to banning immigrants from other countries, Meehan said, as the Trump administration moves beyond the 100-day mark, he hopes the president and his cabinet can embrace them.

"What I would like to see more than anything else is a culture that recognises the value of these highly skilled folks who bring strength, not weakness, to our country and to our economy."

Adam Harris is a breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.