The Future of Higher Education Policy Under President Trump


 “Higher learning has been central to the American story, written over centuries, empowering individuals not only to advance their own station, but also to engage in our democracy – to preserve and protect those freedoms.” – Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education, retrospective address at Northeastern University, January 12, 2017

Every four or eight years our nation’s capital undergoes a changing of the guard as the president and their administration is replaced by a newly elected president with their own staff and political appointees. Some years the change has little impact on education policy, but some years, like this one, the change is likely to be significant. As America watches a new administration take office Friday, it’s an excellent opportunity to look back at the Obama administration’s higher education policy and anticipate what the future will hold under President Trump.

Where We’ve Been—Higher Education Policy Under Obama

Shortly after taking office, President Obama laid out his goal of making the United States the “best educated, most competitive workforce in the world” by having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. As a result, higher education played an important role in the Obama administration with a number of policies promoted that focused on the dual themes of access and accountability.


A number of efforts in this arena revolved around the desire to open higher education to a much larger percentage of the population, especially the “new traditional” adult learner. As a result, the conversation around alternative pathways to credentials and lifelong learning played a central role in program and policy development, especially competency-based education (CBE) programs and bootcamps.

Although CBE has been around since at least the ‘70s, the last eight years saw a reimagining and resurgence of CBE, especially direct assessment programs. In an effort to understand the institutional level challenges that CBE can pose, especially around financial aid, the Department of Education announced a series of experimental site opportunities in 2014. And in a related effort to better understand the value and opportunities that non-traditional service providers might provide, the Department also announced opportunities for institutions and non-traditional providers such as bootcamps to collaborate. The 2015 EQUIP (Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships) program has provided eight institutions with the opportunity to explore alternative pathways to credentials, largely for returning adult learners.

In other efforts to expand access, the Obama administration also worked to address the need to make higher education more affordable. During the last eight years, Pell grants have increased by $1,000 and student debt – especially loan repayment – was the a focus of several efforts. For example, more students are now enrolled in income-based student loan repayment plans than before. And in response to the high-profile closures of several for-profit institutions, the Department of Education released a new set of borrower defense to repayment regulations that provide students with a mechanism for discharging student loan debt if they were victims of fraud or misrepresentation by their institution.


Closely related to the Obama administration’s access agenda was a strong focus on institutional accountability, largely addressed through Department of Education regulations.

Starting in 2010, the Department attempted to draft regulations governing out-of-state distance education. After six years and a failed round of negotiated rulemaking, the Department finally released those regulations late last year. Two of the administration’s most controversial attempts at accountability were the creation of the college scorecard and gainful employment regulations.

In an effort to improve institutional transparency and provide students and parents with better information, the Department of Education released its college scorecard in 2015, a scaled back version of an earlier administration proposal. And perhaps one of the most controversial set of regulations the Department released over the last eight years were the gainful employment regulations. Meant as a way to ensure that students are accessing credential programs that lead to meaningful employment in their fields, in 2014 the Department released regulations that would remove financial aid eligibility for those programs that are found to have either student loan payments of over 12% of student earnings or 30% of discretionary income. Largely aimed at the for-profit sector, the Department released its first round of results earlier this month that found over 800 programs failed this test for gainful employment.

Where We’re Going—Higher Education Policy Under Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump spent very little time talking about higher education; most of the Republican nominee’s educational focus was on K-12. As a result, there is still a great amount of uncertainty on what higher education can expect under a Trump administration, but we do know a few things.

Much like the Obama administration, Trump and the Republican Party decried the high cost of education and advocated for the importance of institutional accountability. However, they differ considerably over the role of the federal government in regulating higher education as well as how students should fund that education. During the campaign, Trump only offered up one concrete higher education policy proposal—proposed changes to the current income repayment plan. Under the current plan borrowers pay 10% of their income for 20 years at which time any remaining debt would be discharged. The Trump proposal would change the income repayment to 12.5% but would allow for discharging debt after 15 years.

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education has also been largely silent on higher education issues. Betsy DeVos has focused her remarks on school choice and vouchers, although in her opening statement at her January 17 confirmation hearings she did call for new pathways of learning in order to make higher education less expensive and more affordable. DeVos also emphasized in her brief remarks on higher education the importance of workforce education, noting: “Students should make informed choices about what type of education they want to pursue post high school and have access to high quality options. President-elect Trump and I agree we need to support all post-secondary avenues, including trade and vocational schools, and community colleges.”

Given what has so far been only limited interest in higher education from the Trump administration, most pundits believe that higher education policy over the next four years will primarily be shaped by Congress, specifically Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, the chair and ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Representative Virginia Foxx, the chair of the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce. Based on previous sessions we can expect attempts to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and attempts to rollback recent Department of Education regulations such as gainful employment.

What to Watch

As we move into what is a largely unknown federal education policy landscape, there are several issues that will need to be addressed over the next few years.

  • When will the Higher Education Act be reauthorized? Will reauthorization be easier in a Republican controlled executive and legislative environment?
  • Will Congress use the Congressional Review Act to rescind recent Department of Education regulations such as out-of-state distance education or borrower repayment?
  • What will happen with gainful employment regulations and other regulations that are largely geared towards for-profit institutions?
  • Will year-round Pell funding be restored?
  • Will the regulatory authority of the Department of Education be scaled back?

What happens after 10:00 am on January 20 is still unknown, but if the 2016 campaign is any indicator we can expect surprises.