What now? Our expert breaks it down

How the election could shape higher education

David Attis, managing directorDavid Attis, Managing Director

Prognostication is always risky, rarely more so than in the wake of an election that surprised the forecasters as much as the candidates themselves.

Add to that a president-elect who has given scant details about his policy plans, and predictions become even more challenging. Nonetheless, the policy environment for higher education for the next four years will undoubtedly be very different from the past eight years.

International enrollment likely to slow

The most likely near-term implications for higher education arise not from any education-specific policies but rather from the centerpiece of Trump's campaign, namely immigration. While Trump once tweeted his support for international students, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and restrictive proposals will almost certainly lead to a slowing in the growth of international students coming to the United States and potentially real declines.

A survey released at NAFSA in June found that 60% of prospective international students said they would be less likely to study at an American college if Donald Trump were elected. Large research universities with global reputations and deep pools of candidates are not likely to see absolute decreases, but the many regional public and private institutions hoping to diversify and meet enrollment targets in the face of declining domestic demographics will struggle.

Those institutions serving undocumented students will likely come under pressure as well. The high schools in Silver Spring, MD where I live reported yesterday that some students were in tears out of fear that their parents will be deported.

17 best practices for supporting international students on campus

Manageable debt rather than free tuition

Also important is what Trump has said he will not do, specifically tuition-free or debt-free college—a centerpiece of the Clinton and Sanders' campaigns.

While progress on "free college" initiatives is likely to continue at the state and local level, the odds of a federal initiative are vanishingly small. Trump's only higher education policy speech focused on integrating and expanding existing income-based repayment plans—which have broad bipartisan support—as the primary mechanism for increasing affordability.

Trump's proposal was to cap payments as a share of income at 12.5 percent and forgive any remaining balances after 15 years. This approach would likely increase overall debt but ideally reduce the burden of repayment on students.

A fact sheet on FAFSA changes you can hand straight to your students

Affordability and institutional costs

More concerning for universities are Trump's thoughts on how to maintain affordability through price caps and mechanisms designed to encourage universities to reduce costs (especially administrative costs). EAB research has found many opportunities to reduce administrative costs (in areas such as procurement, IT, finance, and HR), but these cost savings simply are not large enough to significantly reduce tuition.

Trump has also suggested taxing large endowments to incentivize institutions to spend more of resources on current students. He will face a tension between wanting to intervene in university administration and his broader goal to reduce federal regulation and make the Department of Education "very, very, very small".

Congressional Republicans likely the real policy drivers

A better predictor of higher ed policy is probably the Republican party platform. With Republicans in control of the House and the Senate as well as the White House, they may be eager to take up the long-delayed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

How Congress might approach HEA reauthorization

Previous Republican proposals indicate that they are likely to cap or reduce Pell funding, which has expanded dramatically in recent years. Pell expansion has been a critical (though insufficient) backfill for cuts in state funding. Reductions in Pell would require colleges and universities to allocate more of their own stretched financial aid resources to low-income students.

The federal government's limited role

In many ways, state governments play more of a role in financing and regulating higher education than the federal government. The state context will continue to shape what is possible for public (and to some degree private) colleges and universities. And while the federal role has expanded in recent years, Trump seems intent on reducing it.

Trump, however, has clearly had an enormous impact on the broader national climate. Faculty and students who already felt their values were under attack from the broader society see Trump's rhetoric about immigration, sexual assault, climate science, and 'political correctness' as a fundamental threat to academic freedom and the core values of universities. The AAUP has already issued a warning statement and many students were out protesting hours after the election. Tensions on campus are likely to increase as we wait to see what President Trump will do.

The resources academic leaders need for managing through change

Next in Today's Briefing

Students protests break out nationwide after Trump victory

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague