Kristin Tyndall, Senior Editor
Last night, President Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union address. Though he didn't spend much time directly speaking about education (more on that later), several of his comments do have implications for colleges and universities. Here are five key quotes from the address that might reveal hints about the administration's plans for higher ed in the coming year.
1. "Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small business, to lower tax rates for hard-working Americans. We nearly doubled the standard deduction for everyone."
Higher ed leaders have expressed concerns about the tax overhaul and the standard deduction increase in particular. Some worry that the cost of the legislation (an estimated $1.46 trillion) could lead to future efforts by federal and state governments to balance their budgets by cutting funding to higher education (and other areas). Others worry that the new tax on endowments, which currently affects relatively few institutions, could open the door to more sweeping endowment taxes in the future.
Finally, raising the standard deduction reduced the incentive for middle-class families to donate to nonprofits (by making it less likely they will itemize their deductions), some philanthropy experts argue. The Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis estimated up to a $13 billion decrease in giving as a result of the bill.
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2. "One of Staub's employees, Corey Adams, is also with us tonight. Corey is an all-American worker. He supported himself through high school, lost his job during the 2008 recession, and was later hired by Staub, where he trained to become a welder."
Trump praised welder Corey Adams and his employer, Staub Manufacturing, where Trump said Adams received his welding training. Politicians have a long history of praising welding, which they view as the perfect example of an in-demand job with a livable salary that does not require a four-year degree.
Because of these characteristics, references to welding are often used to call into question the value of a bachelor's degree or the liberal arts. "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and fewer philosophers," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in 2015.
Note that Trump chose to praise a welder who learned his trade from his employer—not from a local community college. So his statement signals that he supports technical education, but it's not clear whether future investments in that area would benefit community colleges in addition to employers.
Also see: What Rubio's "welder" comment got right about education—and what colleges should do about it
3. "To speed access to breakthrough cures and affordable generic drugs, last year, the FDA approved more new and generic drugs and medical devices than ever before in our country's history. We also believe that patients with terminal conditions, terminal illness, should have access to experimental treatment immediately that could potentially save their lives… One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs."
One way of interpreting these statements is that Trump is calling for more research into new kinds of treatments and drugs, ultimately providing patients with more options.
Universities are an essential part of the research ecosystem, so this could be a sign that Trump will take a more encouraging stance toward research funding. The president does not have the authority to directly influence the primary sources of university research funding, but he can put pressure on Congress to make changes.
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4. "Let's open great vocational schools, so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential."
Later in his speech, Trump again praised technical education, this time explicitly mentioning schools. NPR reports that, in a recent speech, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she'd like to see more innovation with "industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials and licensures, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, microdegrees" and "apprenticeships."
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5. "Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families… We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws and support our ICE and border patrol agents."
Immigration reform was a central theme of Trump's first year in office, but many of his proposals and orders related to immigration caused logistical challenges for colleges.
He issued a series of executive orders about travel that left students and faculty temporarily stranded at airports worldwide as officials sorted out how to apply the orders. And in the fall, he announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, kicking off a new wave of campus protests and raising concerns among recipients who are current college students.
Congress plans to vote on immigration reform in the next few months. A proposal from the White House would create a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients and people in similar situations, according
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The president mentioned support for several initiatives that higher education could help the administration achieve, such as alleviating the opioid crisis, attracting international investment, and helping people leave the justice system and re-integrate into society, notes David Attis, managing director of strategic research at EAB.
However, Trump had few direct words on the subject of education, and those focused exclusively on one aspect of higher ed—vocational education. The administration could be overlooking the potential of a broad, diverse, healthy higher education system to help it achieve its goals, Attis argues.
"Once we acknowledge that education is central to all our national goals, we can begin to talk productively about what it will take to preserve the strengths of our education system and expand its impact to even more people," he says (NPR, transcript with annotations, 1/30).
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