Trump on Higher Education: What to Watch For

Originally published on May 8, 2017 at Blackboard

Recently I reviewed how education fared during the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Today we’ll take a look at the recent Congressional budget continuing resolution and what to watch for during the next 100 days. 

The budget deal

Earlier this year the White House released its FY 2018 proposed “skinny” budget, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, which proposed a $59.5 billion increase for the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. In order to offset the increase, the proposal also included cuts from fifteen different agencies including a 13 percent reduction to the Department of Education’s budget. And although we are a long way off from reaching a deal on the 2018 budget, the recent FY17 continuing budget resolution (CR) to formalize appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year gives us some ideas of how Congress might respond to President Trump’s proposed education cuts.

Title I funds

  •  White House FY18 budget: Title I funds to schools with high concentrations of impoverished students would increase by $1 billion dollars with new money earmarked for use at private charter schools.
  •  CR: $100 million increase but none of these funds are earmarked to support school choice.

Title II funds

  • White House FY18 budget: Eliminate the $2.4 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants included in Title II funding. This money is used for teacher preparation and professional development.
  •  CR: $294 million cut for the rest of FY17. This will leave $2.1 billion for total FY17 appropriations.

Title IV funds

  •  White House proposed FY18 budget: No funding for state block grants created in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which are estimated to cost $1.6 billion
  •  CR: Only $400 million of the $1.6 billion needed to fully fund the program was appropriated. States will be allowed to decide if the funds will be allocated through a competitive process or made to all districts based on a formula. States will be required to spend 20 percent on initiatives towards safer and healthier students and 20 percent on initiatives that support the creation of well-rounded students. Up to 25 percent can be spent on technology infrastructure. 

Pell Grants

  •  White House FY18 budget: Level funding of Pell Grants but would eliminate $3.9 billion in unobligated carryover funding. There was no discussion of whether year-round Pell should return.
  •  CR: The maximum Pell award is slightly raised by $105 to $5,920, and $1.31 billion in unobligated carryover funding is canceled. Year-round Pell funding is restored.

Impact Aid

  •  White House FY18 budget: Impact Aid Support Payments for Federal Property, funds that go to school districts that have lost significant property tax revenue because of the presence of military bases and other Federal tax-exempt properties, was included in the list of programs to be eliminated or reduced.
  •  CR: $25 million increase for the remainder of the fiscal year, bringing FY17 appropriations up to $9.3 billion.

TRIO and GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs)

  •  White House FY18 budget: Proposed $193 million cut from the two programs. These programs are aimed at assisting underserved students in entering college and finishing a college degree.
  •  CR: $67 million increase, bringing total FY17 appropriations for TRIO up to $950 million and for GEAR UP up to $340 million.

Miscellaneous funds

  •  White House FY18 budget: The administration’s proposed FY18 budget significantly reduced or eliminated several other education and research programs housed in other agencies such as the National Institute for Health (NIH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
  •  CR: Both NEA and NEH received $150 million each, which represents a slight increase over FY16 funding, while NIH received $2 billion more in funding than in FY16. Head Start funding also increased $85 million and apprenticeship programs received an additional $5 million bringing their FY17 total appropriations up to $95 million. 

With the fight over the FY18 budget looming, what do these differences between Congressional spending and White House recommendations mean? Most likely it indicates that there is strong bipartisan support for much of the educational funding and that Congress isn’t inclined to sign off on the steep education cuts proposed by the White House.

What to watch for

As President Trump ends his first 100 days, much remains unknown about education, and this is unlikely to change as the administration turns its attention to health care and tax reform. Several areas in particular bear paying attention to in the coming months, especially as the FY18 budget negotiations heat up.

Elementary and secondary education

So far conversations at both the Department of Education and the White House have focused on school choice and the ability of private schools to use public funds. However, concrete proposals have yet to surface on how such a school choice program might look. An additional unknown involves the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, where the Department of Education has the responsibility for reviewing state accountability plans and provide feedback. It’s unclear the extent to which the Department will provide any substantive feedback or will merely rubber stamp the proposed state plans.

Higher education

Currently the largest number of unknowns lie in higher education, where little has been said by the White House and a leadership void exists in the Department of Education. As a result, several significant higher education issues remain unresolved.

  •  Accreditation– During the Obama Administration there was a renewed focus on accreditation culminating in the Department’s decision to no longer recognize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), resulting in almost 700 schools scrambling to find a new accreditor in order to continue to receive student financial aid dollars. It is unclear if a DeVos Department of Education will continue to scrutinize accreditors and accreditation.
  •  Discharging student loans– In the aftermath of the closure of Corinthian Colleges, ITT Technical Institute, and the American Career Institute, almost 35,000 students have gained some form of federal loan forgiveness. Uncertainty remains, however, over whether or not the Trump Administration will support borrower-to-defense regulations that allow students to discharge all debt if allegations of institutional fraud are found to be true. To date, all borrower-to-defense findings have been against for-profit institutions, raising the question of whether or not the current administration will loosen regulations impacting these institutions.
  •  Infrastructure and workforce education– During the campaign, President Trump promised the creation of a $1 trillion infrastructure and jobs package. Any major infrastructure package would need to include funds for workforce training to fill the anticipated “millions of new jobs.” However, as the Washington Post points out, the status of this promise is uncertain as the program would have to be revenue neutral, which would be particularly difficult in light of recent budget and tax proposals. The recent increase in funds for apprenticeship programs is, according to New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy, “a real signal that the interest in apprenticeship won’t die with the Obama administration.”
  •  Personnel– Until appointments are made for key Department of Education positions, especially the Under Secretary, the extent to which the Department will focus on higher education remains unknown. Additionally, key positions in telecommunication and IT regulations also remain unfilled. Depending upon who is appointed to these positions, especially the open commissioner positions at both the FCC and the FTC, regulatory issues like net neutrality and broadband costs, both of which impact higher education institutions, remain uncertain.
  •  Pell– Although the current funding level for Pell was preserved in the President’s proposed “skinny” budget and there was a slight increase in funding in the continuing budget resolution, proposed cuts to Pell reserves have alarmed some higher education advocates and call into question the ability to increase Pell. The inclusion of year-round Pell in the continuing resolution was lauded by both Republicans and Democrats but could still be vulnerable during the 2018 budget negotiations if cuts are made to Pell or its reserves.

There is still an enormous number of unknowns regarding how education will fair during the Trump Administration. And certainly the recent FY17 continuing resolution indicates that even a Republican controlled Congress is not inclined to go along with the president’s proposed deep budget cuts.