In the wake of the violent protest that recently broke out at the University of California, Berkeley, President Trump threatened to cut federal funding to the university on the grounds that it limited free speech. (Though some experts on freedom of speech argue that the university did not restrict speech because it canceled the event based on a real threat of violence.)
But don't panic. Trump can't do that—most likely.
Writing for the Washington Post, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel identifies the three channels through which universities receive federal funding, and the extent to which the president can scale each one back.
1: Pell Grants
Federal aid in the form of Pell Grants is awarded to students from families with annual incomes generally below $60,000 per year. There is no specific law that enables the president to roll back these grants due to violations of free speech. But Robert Shibley, the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says the "administration could use regulations to that end" and hesitates to rule out the possibility.
"It's potentially possible that this could be accomplished in individual cases using other regulations," says Shibley.
2: Loans and other financial aid
Most federal funding for universities flows through student financial aid, which is dispensed through the Title IV program to students.
In order to ensure their students keep receiving this money, schools must uphold a certain quality of education, and prove that most of their students don't wind up defaulting on their loans.
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Upholding First Amendment free speech rights, Douglas-Gabriel writes, aren't part of the qualifications.
David Bergeron, a 35-year veteran of the Education Department and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains that "Nothing in current law would allow the federal government to withhold funds on free speech grounds."
What the future of Pell Grants might look like
3: Research grants
Federal aid also flows to schools by way of research grants, which usually come from government organizations such as the National Institutes for Health. These federal dollars enable students and faculty to pursue research that will ultimately benefit the public interest.
Trump does not have the executive authority to influence these funds on his own. But he does have the power to pressure Congress to cut federal spending on research, Douglas-Gabriel writes. However, if he were to do so, it would put all public universities' research in jeopardy, not just one specific school's.
Bergeron does add that there are several more minor channels through which federal money flows to universities, but none quite as direct as these three, and none that the president has any direct authority to limit.
"A small portion of the student aid funds—work-study, supplemental grants—go as grants to the institution, but those funds flow based on a congressionally mandated formula that doesn't include free speech," says Bergeron (Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 2/2).
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