Trump Issues Higher Ed Executive Order Calling for Campus Free Speech, Greater Transparency

By NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff

The Trump Administration on Thursday issued its first higher education-related Executive Order (EO) on the topics of campus free speech, accountability, and transparency. The EO puts a plan in place to require institutions to support free speech in order to receive federal research dollars, and requires additional College Scorecard data, including program-level outcome data.

Leading up to the release of his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, President Donald Trump last month hinted that the higher education-focused EO, announced officially yesterday at White House event, would be coming soon. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement that the EO "demonstrates this administration's commitment to supporting and empowering students with meaningful resources as they pursue their life-long learning journeys and future careers."

"As students pursue their education, they should never face limits on what, when, where, or how they learn," DeVos said. "They should be empowered to pursue truth through the free exchange of all ideas, especially ideas with which they may not agree. Free inquiry is an essential feature of our democracy, and I applaud the President's continued support for America's students."

"Improving Free Inquiry on Campus"

The Trump administration has repeatedly publicly denounced institutions for not protecting free speech on campus, and the EO directs schools to protect speech or be subject to losing their federal research dollars. Specifically, the EO requires heads of several federal agencies to "ensure institutions that receive federal research and education grants promote free inquiry." The EO specifically exempts "federal student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends."

"Improving Transparency and Accountability on Campus"

The EO also addresses both accountability and transparency through its directive to the Department of Education (ED) to deliver program-level outcome data for institutions through the College Scorecard, or any successor. The Trump Administration argues that current outcomes data do not provide sufficient transparency for consumers when making decisions about their institutions and programs, nor do they hold institutions accountable for the success of their students. The EO directs ED to add new program-level and institution-level data to the College Scorecard by Jan. 1, 2020.

Expanded program-level data includes:

  • Estimated median earnings (The EO tasks the Secretary of the Treasury to provide data to ED to facilitate program-level earnings data);

  • Median Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loan debt;

  • Median Graduate PLUS loan debt (if applicable);

  • Median Parent PLUS loan debt (if applicable); and

  • Student loan default and repayment rates.

The EO also expands institution-level data on the College Scorecard to include:

  • Student loan default and repayment rates;

  • Graduate PLUS default and repayment rates; and

  • Parent PLUS default and repayment rates.

Expanding outcomes data to include program-level data is not a new idea. ED proposed expanding the College Scorecard to include program-level data in its gainful employment repeal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in August 2018, though a final rule is still pending, and the idea has been floated on Capitol Hill, including in the PROSPER Act, which called for program-level repayment rates.

More recently, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), announced he would like to institute an accountability metric related to program-level repayment rates. Alexander, however, pushed back on the EO in a statement released Thursday, saying that while he agrees that there is a need for better data and greater accountability in reducing student debt, he does not want to see "Congress or the President or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus."

"The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in," Alexander said. "Conservatives don't like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution."

Currently, the College Scorecard includes institution-wide data, including median earnings for all students who received federal student aid, a repayment rate metric, and median undergraduate debt, among other variables.

The EO also directs ED to make available a "secure and confidential website and mobile application" that informs federal student loan borrowers of:

  • How much they owe;

  • How much their monthly payment will be when they enter repayment;

  • Available repayment options;

  • How long each repayment option will take; and

  • How to enroll in the repayment option that best serves their need.

Today, students can find out information about their loans through the National Student Loan Database System (NSLDS) and StudentLoans.gov—two websites both run by ED. Through NSLDS, students can determine the original amount of their loan(s), see any interest that has accrued, learn who their loan servicer is, and view the annual interest rate and current payment status of their loan(s). By logging into their StudentLoans.gov account, students can find information regarding repayment options at any time during the life of their loan(s) by using the website's "Repayment Estimator," a tool that collects the student's current loan balance, as well as other applicable information, to show how they would fare under each repayment plan option.

Reporting Requirements

The EO also requires ED, in consultation with several executive agencies, to submit several reports, including "a report identifying and analyzing policy options for sharing the risk associated with federal student loan debt among the federal government, institutions, and other entities," a report with recommendations to reform the collections process for defaulted loans, and a report with information about "successful state and institutional efforts to promote students' timely and affordable completion of a postsecondary program of study."

While not law, EOs are directives from the president that carry the force of the law, and must be implemented by the associated agencies—in this case, ED, Treasury, and several other agencies with research programs. It is not uncommon for administrations to issue EOs; the move to the use of prior-prior year data on the FAFSA and early FAFSA, for example, came from an EO issued by the Obama Administration. NASFAA will continue to follow the implementation of this directive.

 

Publication Date: 3/21/2019


Lori V | 3/22/2019 12:27:13 PM

I hope all, not just the earnings piece, is tasked to the Department, Treasury and other agencies...they have this data. Let's face it, they have lots of data, it is just how it gets pulled together.

David S | 3/22/2019 9:53:45 AM

I have plenty to say about the "free speech" issue, but as it's not a financial aid matter, I'll spare everyone except those who punish themselves by following me on Twitter.

The better information on costs, loans and earnings...the obvious response is that a lot of it is already there, and we know that the Dept of Ed collects no data on how any of it is used. I remain convinced that many students place a school's location, reputation, and how cute the tour guide was higher up on the decision-making list than loan repayment rates. If we can get real information about what data people look for and use when making an enrollment decision, that would move this discussion forward in a meaningful way. Otherwise, we're just guessing.

And much of this was discussed by the Higher Ed Committee of 50; consumer-tested loan counseling materials, eliminating the reporting of data shown not to be widely used by students, standardizing language in our communications, implementation of a Student Unit Record Data System so we can track student outcomes and employment/earnings better...read all the recommendations at http://www.highereducationcommitteeof50.org/final-report.

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