Trump agenda must not endanger what makes US HE strong

The government’s partnership with universities has been good for all; Anthony Monaco hopes the new administration will strengthen it

November 17, 2016
Donald Trump illustration, by Matthew Brazier
Source: Matthew Brazier

The presidential election continues to dominate the conversation on US campuses as students, faculty, administrators and others attempt to interpret an outcome that few had anticipated.

At my own university, there is palpable anxiety resulting from the divisive rhetoric of the campaign, especially around the rights of groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender and faith. Discussions have also focused on the security of federal student loan programmes and the future of federal funding for a range of research priorities, among other issues.

We know very little about what a Donald J. Trump presidency portends for US higher education. The 45th president, a political newcomer, has offered scant specifics about his education platform. But come January, the Republican Party will hold the reins of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, so the Trump administration will be in a strong position to enact its legislative agenda. At the state level, where many decisions affecting public colleges and universities are made, Republicans now hold a decisive legislative majority.

It is my hope that a Trump education agenda will reinforce what makes US higher education pre-eminent in the world, and focus productively on those areas critical to the prosperity and well-being of American society.

In his victory speech, Trump pledged that his administration will provide opportunities for every American to reach his or her fullest potential. Higher education must be central to achieving that worthy goal because it offers an accessible path to individual achievement and a more prosperous, egalitarian society. A degree is critical to levelling the playing field, and we must ensure that students can pursue post-secondary education regardless of their family bank account. Financial aid and student loans enable such opportunities.

There has been talk in Trump campaign circles about reverting to a market-based lending system. Given previous experience, I have serious concerns about this because it’s more costly. Banks issued federally backed student loans until 2010, when the government began originating all federal student loans. Eliminating private lenders as middlemen reportedly saved billions, which then funded more Pell Grants, awarded almost exclusively to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year.

Trump has floated a more generous approach to income-based repayment of student loans, one that would lower the income cap and shorten the repayment period before the remaining balance is forgiven. We don’t yet know whether his administration will move forward with this, or whether there is the political will to enact it.

College affordability remains a contentious issue, and the indebtedness of graduates has become a national concern. Higher education remains a sound investment for individuals, and it serves the national interest. Colleges and universities educate students for a lifetime of achievement, equipping them with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills so they can be productive in a workforce that is evolving with breathtaking speed. That’s a societal benefit that is politically agnostic.

Trump’s rhetoric regarding “extreme vetting” of individuals from certain countries and backgrounds, as well as potential changes to immigration policy, could make US higher education institutions less attractive to international students and faculty. However, to fully educate US students to be engaged global citizens, it is essential that they learn from a diversity of perspectives, including those of international students and faculty. Our universities’ graduates abroad play an important role in building productive international relationships, while their presence on our campuses gives American students the chance to develop a broader worldview and global connections.

Colleges and universities are engines for social good. They fuel prosperity. Ours is an innovation economy reliant on research and discovery to advance public health, business and industry, technology and public policy.

I urge the Trump administration to increase funding for federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The nation’s business and research enterprises rely on these agencies to seed innovation and breakthroughs in many sectors. I am heartened by the president-elect’s responses to a questionnaire developed by the bipartisan research advocacy group ScienceDebate.org. His campaign acknowledged that government “must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare, and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer, and more prosperous”. The Trump administration may have less revenue to allocate to discretionary budgets given talk about federal tax cuts, so let’s hope that reversing the downward trend in funding for science, technology and biomedical research is one of his highest priorities.

The century-old partnership between the federal government and higher education has been mutually beneficial. It produces outcomes that advance society, including the 1944 GI Bill and the 1965 American Higher Education Act, which provided financial assistance for the first time. Strengthening that partnership must be a priority for the new administration. The question of how best to advance equity and opportunity was central to this election. Working together, higher education and the Trump administration can do both.

Anthony P. Monaco is president of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

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