In First Year, Trump Administration Hands Higher Ed Policy Reins to Congress

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Looking at the headlines, it would appear that the higher education landscape has changed significantly in the last year. During its first year, the Trump administration has made a point of scaling back the role of the federal government in higher education policy and turning back several key regulations of the previous administration. But one year in, it's unclear how much has substantively changed, and how intent Trump's Department of Education (ED) is on making its mark on higher education policy.

Overall, several thought leaders in higher education said ED under the Trump administration may not be too keen on putting forth substantial policy recommendations, rather letting that duty fall to Congress, as lawmakers continue to push forward with plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA).

"A year ago everybody was breathlessly calling around trying to figure out what the Trump administration was going to do in higher education, what their agenda might be," said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "And then a year later it turns out it didn't matter, and really what we needed to be focused on the whole time was Congress."

The shift in the administration's approach to handling higher education isn't necessarily unusual, according to Delisle.

"I think we have an Obama-era bias in our view of what's normal," he said. "It's very unusual for an administration to be very active in higher education. It's unusual for an administration to be as aggressive in going through the entire higher education law and trying to find places where they can issue regulations. If anything, the Obama administration was very unusual in that regard."

Megan Coval, vice president for policy and federal relations at NASFAA, said the change may be more evident immediately following the Obama administration.

"Obama did not give a big address without mentioning higher education in some way," Coval said.

It's likely that 2018 will follow the path laid out in the last year, according to Liz Hill, press secretary for ED. 

"The Secretary is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education and return[ing] decision-making power back to where it belongs: with states, local communities and families," Hill said. "Part of that commitment includes rolling-back overreaching regulation implemented by the previous administration that may have been well-intended but led to far-reaching consequences that have had a tremendous impact on students."

Still, the past year was anything but dull for the higher education community. Early on, the financial aid community was thrown for a loop when ED and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) deactivated the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) without warning due to security concerns, and remained offline the rest of the 2017-18 FAFSA cycle. The spring and summer months remained busy as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a series of actions seeking to roll back changes made under the Obama administration, including her intent to amend the existing solicitation for a student loan servicing revamp to seek out just a single loan servicer (which was rolled back after consumer protection advocates and Democratic lawmakers suggested it could decrease accountability), and plans to recall the contentious gainful employment and borrower defense regulations, which are currently in the midst of being rewritten in the negotiated rulemaking process.

And at ED's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), changes in leadership have continued over the last several months. James Runcie, who had served as the chief operating officer of FSA since 2011, abruptly resigned in May after a reported dispute with Devos. Runcie's deputy, Matthew Sessa, stepped into the position temporarily until Devos appointed A. Wayne Johnson, the former CEO of a payment card tech company with a background in finance, to lead FSA in June. But just last week, DeVos announced Johnson would step aside to lead a new Strategy and Transformation unit within FSA, and that James Manning, currently the acting undersecretary of education, would fill in as the acting head of FSA.

On top of the changes in leadership at ED, many appointed positions remain unfilled, which may contribute to a lack of pointed policy proposals, according to Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

"Part of what you're seeing is the effect of understaffing and insufficient knowledge," Miller said. "They don't have the personnel for the idea-generation necessary."

Any ideas for concrete change, according to some, will come from FSA with its proposals to develop a mobile FAFSA app, and to pilot a prepaid debit card for financial aid recipients.

During his brief stint as the chief of FSA, Johnson set a "very ambitious and robust plan about the processing of federal student aid, of how students interact with the agency," said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for the National College Access Network (NCAN).

"He really seems to want to bring the agency into the future," Warick said.

NASFAA's Coval said the new vision is a good thing for the agency.

"New leadership at FSA has provided the opportunity to really rethink the student experience in terms of how they are receiving financial aid and keeping track of how much they're borrowing and how they're doing," Coval said. "That space had been relatively stagnant prior."

Any larger changes to how the nation's higher education system operates, though, will likely come from Congress.

While the Trump administration's first budget proposal did include significant changes for higher education and financial aid, many of those provisions have not been included in Congress' budget plans or reauthorization bills.

"The question will be whether he allows Congress to run lead on reauthorization, or whether the Trump administration will come up with its own agenda," Coval said.

Broad themes — such as a desire to move to a "one grant, one loan" model, and the elimination of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) — appeared in Trump's budget proposal, but closely mirrored where Republicans stand on reauthorization.

While solid policy proposals may not be coming directly from the White House, the Trump administration's first year has coincided with a change in how policymakers and the general public are talking about higher education.

One thing that stands out about the Trump administration's stance is officials' repeated emphasis on the need for more alternative pathways to a postsecondary education.

In particular, the Trump administration has been focused on expanding access to apprenticeships and improving workforce development.

"Students also deserve more options when considering their education beyond high school. They deserve a 21st Century approach to 21st Century challenges," Hill said. "They must be exposed to the multiple pathways available that can lead to a productive and rewarding future. The reality today is that there are over 6 million jobs going unfilled in America with a lack of qualified workers to fill them. That's why this administration is committed to expanding access to career and technical education, apprenticeships and other programs that will set our nation’s students up for success."

Last week, DeVos spoke to a group of mayors gathered in Washington, DC for an annual conference, saying there is "a fundamental disconnect between education and the economy." During her speech, DeVos emphasized the need for a more skilled workforce to fill a number of job openings across the country — "as the ‘blue collar' jobs of yesterday become the ‘blue tech' jobs of today."

And like some lawmakers in Congress and other officials within the Trump administration, DeVos said "too many implicitly or explicitly suggest there is only one path to success," before listing other options to gain employer-desired skills, such as certificates, stackable credentials, licenses, micro-degrees, badges, and apprenticeships.

"All of these are valid pursuits. Each should be embraced as such," she said. "If it's the right fit for the student, then it's the right education. No stigma should follow a student's journey to success."

Tamara Hiler, a senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way, said in the last year, there has been an overall "marked shift in how people in higher education are thinking about the issues." Conversations have expanded from zeroing in on specific policy proposals, such as tuition-free college, and problems facing higher education, such as student loan debt, she said.

"There's been a push across the board to start talking about value, or at least shifting the way we're thinking about these issues," she said.

Some of the shift comes from the natural transition of a new administration taking office, she said, but part has also surfaced in reauthorization discussions. Proposals focused on accountability, transparency, and risk-sharing have become prevalent conversations.

Americans in general have also been questioning the value of a college degree in today's society. A slew of surveys released over the summer showed just how deeply some Americans distrust the nation's higher education system. While one claimed the negative views stem more from the nation's politically-charged environment — and less from the cost or operations of colleges in the United States — another showed that answers can vary depending on what information is given. Republicans' views in particular toward higher education have recently and dramatically swung in a negative direction, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.

The conversation has also bled into larger gatherings within the higher education community. Last week, the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) focused on the value of college, posing a central question to attendees: "Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?"

"What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying, ‘You need to go to college, the reason you're struggling is because you didn't go to college,'" said Tamara Draut, vice president for policy and research at Demos, who spoke on a panel at the AAC&U conference. "We have a dual mission in society. We have got to allow more people to be first-generation [college students], and to get through and graduate without debt. We also have to fight to return some dignity and decency to the idea that you should not need a college degree to lead a decent life in this country. It's an important distinction to make. Higher [education] is great, but it's not all we have to do to fix society's economic and racial inequalities."

Draut pointed to the larger discourse on higher education — that there are problems facing students, such as loan debt and access, but those problems cannot be addressed without tackling other overarching issues.

"In a way, it is positive that we're having these conversations. We might not all agree on the ‘how' … but I do think the fact that we are starting to have these conversations — that seems like a positive shift," she said. "We have to start with the high-level conversations. That leads us into the strategic, detail-oriented conversation that comes next."


Publication Date: 1/31/2018

David S | 2/1/2018 8:10:55 PM

There's a difference between encouraging opportunities and pathways for those who want to pursue careers that do not require a college degree and discouraging worthy and ambitious students from pursuing their dreams. I hope what the Secretary is trying to do is the former. But I'm afraid I'm still not convinced.

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