A New Era for Higher Ed
Leaders Fret Over Trump’s Uncertain Education Agenda
President Obama placed the two-year sector at the center of the recovery from the Great Recession and students flooded community college campuses. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and a longtime community college professor, provided an unprecedented and ongoing shot of credibility. Obama hosted a White House Community College Summit, drawing worldwide attention to the historic mission of access and equity of community colleges.
But those days are soon to be gone. The election of Donald J. Trump as the nation’s 45th president will usher in a new and uncertain era for higher education in general and the nation’s community colleges in particular. Nobody seems to know what happens next.
“This is a major sea change,” said Rufus Glasper, CEO for the League of Innovation in the Community College and former chancellor of the Maricopa County Community Colleges. “We’ve looked at the last eight years as a community college Renaissance. Community colleges have been looked at as the solution to our economy. We increased our numbers. We added another layer of relevancy. But with this election we know we can’t expect the last eight years to continue.”
Community college leaders reacted to the election of Trump with a combination of disbelief and horror. It’s an open secret that most community college faculty and administrators are Democrats. They fully expected that Democrat Hillary Clinton would win.
Their feelings are being stoked by the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s plans for higher education policy. He has vowed to eliminate or at least drastically streamline the U.S. Department of Education. But throughout the long presidential campaign, Trump barely mentioned higher education, and when he did, it was about trying to reduce student loan debt. Community colleges were an afterthought, or less, though his campaign website did say he wanted to make “make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.” Clinton, by contrast, spoke extensively about her plans for higher education.
“Higher education policy has so far taken a back burner to other policy issues and it’s unclear if it will be a priority at all,” said Antoinette Flores, postsecondary education policy analyst for the Center for American Progress. “We do have some indication that policy will focus on the back end in the form of changes to income-based student loan repayment. But the conversation on front-end affordability for new students going forward that was happening among Democrats has so far been absent on the right.”
Some leaders question whether community colleges will have a significant voice as Trump develops and implements his higher education policy.
“I am concerned that community colleges will not have the same ‘seat at the table’ or at least the level of access that was provided by the Obama or even George W. Bush administrations,” said George R. Boggs, president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Trump spoke at Macomb Community College (Mich.) and Miami Dade College during the campaign, but there have been no hints of any policy proposals that show his interest in community colleges.
“Community colleges benefited in the Obama administration by the fact that Jill Biden taught at the community college level, and she readily communicated with me when I was at AACC. We even had a White House Summit on Community Colleges. Mike Pence spoke at several community colleges during the campaign, but he comes from a state (Indiana) with a relatively new commitment to community colleges.
“President Obama regularly communicated his belief that we needed to prepare our people to compete in a global economy, and that community colleges were important to the economic wellbeing of the country.
He challenged us to improve college completion rates as a way of ensuring a strong economy. His strategy was aligned with Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world’ in which America can only be competitive if we have a higher skilled workforce. President-elect Trump, on the other hand, argues for withdrawal from the global economy.
He wants to renegotiate trade agreements, keep companies from moving factories overseas, and build a wall to keep undocumented workers from crossing the border as ways to build the US economy. There is no role for community colleges in this strategy. “ Still, some community college leaders and analysts believe that the gains the sector has made over the past several years can’t easily be undone.
“I hope the unprecedented prestige and appreciation community colleges enjoyed during the Obama and Bush administrations carries over into the new administration,” said Edward J. Leach, executive director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. “Since Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign to strengthen the manufacturing base, hopefully his administration quickly recognizes the key role two-year institutions play in manufacturing partnerships across the country, as well as other ways community and technical colleges help advance the quality of life in communities across the country.”
Added Flores, “More broadly, community colleges having a seat at the table under the Obama administration has helped boost their image and importance in ways that cannot be undone.”
But Trump’s election also likely means that for-profit colleges — a chief competitor for community colleges and a target of aggressive regulation from the Obama administration — are likely about to get some relief. The for-profit colleges themselves seemed optimistic. Stock prices for Apollo Education Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, and Devry University started climbing the day after the election. But the sector’s image has been bruised by scandals over the past few years and their enrollment has been plummeting. Whether they will see a resurgence of students remains uncertain.
“I expect to see a reversal of many of the regulations that have caused the contraction of the for-profit industry,” Boggs said. “Republicans have been more supportive of proprietary education than Democrats, and Trump himself has been engaged in for-profit education. It is important to note that community colleges have also been affected by federal regulation and would welcome some relief from some of the more onerous and costly regulations. We may also see some reduced pressure on accreditors. However, there will still be a need to be sure that taxpayer money is used wisely and that abusive and fraudulent practices are discouraged.”
Community college leaders also fret about other Trump initiatives. Undocumented immigrants who attend community colleges could be targeted for deportation.
“The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allowed immigrant students to come to our campuses and feel comfortable,” Glasper said. “They want to attend college and become citizens. If that goes away, you put a sense of fear in the minority community.”
Glasper is also concerned that Trump’s massive tax cut for the wealthy threatens to further erode public funding for colleges, which has been in retreat for years, placing upward pressure on tuition. Community college leaders would do well to identify other funding sources, Glasper said.
“Based on his discussions about taxes, community colleges are going to have to hunker down and look for alternative funding sources,” he said.
Boggs said community colleges are not seen in the same light as four-year colleges by the Republican Party, and that’s an important distinction.
“I hope that the Trump administration will come to see community colleges as an important part of their strategy to build a sustainable workforce, and that they provide a path to higher education and a better life for many people who now feel disenfranchised,” he said. “While Republicans have claimed that universities are incubators of liberal political thought, community colleges are not generally seen in that light. In general community colleges have been praised by both Republicans and Democrats, and nearly every member of Congress has a community college in his or her district.”
Added Leach, “I hope Trump Administration view community colleges as ready partners in doing what’s right and best for America.”