Donald Trump worries many people in higher education because his presidency will likely have lasting impact on colleges and universities nationwide. Regardless of where you stood on the election, you need to pay close attention to his proposed policy changes to higher education.
Trump made it clear that he expects to roll back federal regulations for higher education and accreditation, to tie educational offerings more closely to workforce development and to change student loan policies. His proposed restrictions on immigration and new visa rules would greatly limit the ability of colleges to recruit immigrant and international students.
Loosening higher education regulations and reporting by stepping away from accreditation, in particular, could allow colleges to withhold pertinent information and data from the public, further reducing their credibility. The process of accreditation, in which colleges are evaluated by a group of neutral peers, keeps everything honest. Likewise, curtailing Title IX investigations into sexual assaults and discrimination might allow some institutions to shirk their responsibilities in providing safe learning communities. Many might see these regulations as nuisances, but they are important protections for students that shouldn’t be casually tossed aside.
Diversity is a strength of American society, and colleges owe students the opportunity to learn in communities that mirror the world they will enter. Additional restrictions on immigrant and international students would place colleges, many with missions of inclusion, in precarious positions. Proposed tighter rules for immigration would challenge the values of higher education, and would financially hurt colleges. Not only would immigrant students avoid colleges they don’t deem as welcoming, but this would affect the ability of colleges to attract students who consider inclusion and diversity important. National demographics point to a decline in the percentage of young white students, but a significant growth in Latino high school graduates. Colleges that depend on enrollment for revenue need to be aware of how political changes affect their abilities to recruit, retain and graduate students.
In addition, many colleges enroll international students as a way to internationalize their campuses and enhance revenue, because foreign students pay higher out-of-state tuition without the benefit of financial aid. Some colleges have grown dependent on this revenue. For them, fewer international students, immigrant students and students of color would mean a diminished student body and shrinking budgets. This could result in higher tuition or fewer course offerings or services.
We should also worry about efforts to tie college curricula too closely to occupational skills and workforce development. Nothing less than the soul of higher education and the middle-class dream is at stake. Yes, students need jobs, but a shift toward vocational training without a commitment to the liberal arts would be a step backward. Only those who can afford to attend top-tier colleges would get such higher levels of learning, while the majority would get vocational education. This was the system we had before World War II. Today’s students deserve both job-ready skills and the critical analytical skills provided by the liberal arts — it’s not a simple either-or.
Colleges and universities are strong institutions and will certainly adapt. But for students in college or entering soon, what happens to higher-education policy in the next few months will affect their whole lives.
Let’s pay close attention.
Richard Greenwald is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of history at Brooklyn College.