General elections always bring with them a measure of uncertainty, but the 2016 cycle has been particularly unique. Daily articles projecting what one might expect from a Trump administration have led the nation's major news outlets as the country tries to figure out what’s next.
Higher education is no different. Coming off of an administration that focused a great deal on performance and accountability, and which many saw as implementing many policies intended to benefit the consumer to the detriment of the institutions, higher education officials are uncertain about what to expect from the next administration.
The theme of the 2016 Higher Education Government Relations Conference, being held this week in St. Petersburg, FL, is “What’s Next? Public Higher Education at a Crossroads” — and for many panelists, “we don’t know” has been a popular answer.
For starters, said Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities Vice President for Congressional and Governmental Affairs Jennifer Poulakidas, the budget for FY17 is up in the air and may be addressed via year-long continuing resolution, much to the chagrin of many in Congress.
Many in higher education were hopeful that year-round Pell grants would return with the passage of a FY17 budget, but Poulakidas warns “we may lose that completely” if it does not pass for the current fiscal year. Not only that, she said, but a “big boost in funding for NIH also was a nice potential” item on the slate this year that may die out if a permanent budget does not pass.
The biggest concern, however, said Poulakidas, is that “the current budget caps for FY18 are actually lower than they are for FY17,” which could mean even less money directed to higher ed. Not only that, but the former veto threat kept budget cuts proportionately balanced so that any cuts to non-defense discretionary spending had to be equal to cuts to discretionary spending. Though this has been a priority for both parties, the lack of veto threat looking ahead no longer will guide cuts to discretionary spending.
Many people believe 2017 will be the year of the tax reform, and indeed, it is shaping up to be one of the first agenda items for the new Congress — perhaps right after addressing the current year’s budget.
Brian Flahaven, director of legislative, foundation and recognition programs for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said higher ed should be particularly concerned about the tax agenda for the 115th Congress.
For one, changes to charitable deductions codes that will favor a shift away from itemized deductions by raising the standard deduction threshold will likely disincentivize charitable giving. Flahaven projects this could drop by 4.5% to 9% — and for institutions already grappling with decreased state and federal funding, projected declines in private philanthropy and alumni giving are certainly not going to be good for the industry.
In addition to charitable deductions being “certainly under threat,” Flahaven said endowments could also be targeted for taxation. “I think it’s likely [we’ll] see more effort, if nothing else, more scrutiny over endowments,” he said, adding that higher education officials should “look for a tax bill to come after endowments.”
American Association of Community Colleges Associated Vice President of Government Relations Jim Hermes said that “accreditation reform has long been and will continue to be a major focus.”
It is a priority for both Democrats and Republicans, and one that is likely to receive a lot of attention in the conversations about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, he said.
DACA and other executive actions
Seemingly the single biggest concern for many administrators around the country is what will happen to DACA, and how it will affect undocumented students on campus.
American Association of State Colleges and Universities Vice President of Government Relations and Policy Analysis Michael Zola said DACA could be immediately repealed, because it is an executive action, if the president-elect so decides upon taking office. However, Zola pointed out, immigration courts are already extraordinarily clogged. Any mandate to increase deportation efforts would add to the judicial backlog, and action to that regard would not be swift at all.
He also pointed out that there is no pathway to citizenship through DACA, and many of the issues that are causing anxiety among undocumented students on campus would still need to be addressed via the DREAM Act, which will likely make its way through Congress again.
On other executive orders, the overtime rule, new teacher regulations and many Title IX regulations — including “Dear Colleague” letters on sexual assault and transgender bathroom access — could become targets. For those with implementation dates after Jan. 20, it is easy to suspend the rulemaking process or implementation of the policies, Zola said. For those that have already taken effect, including guidance on program integrity and gainful employment regulations, it will be a “very arduous, time-consuming” process to roll those back.
Making the case for higher education
Many have advocated that the way to survive the years ahead will be to take control of the narrative that demonstrates higher education’s necessity in the 21st Century.
Poulakidas said higher education officials will have to “meet the guy where he is” — that is, play to the ideas that President-elect Trump, and many Republicans, are heavily focused on providing jobs and growing the economy, which will require an investment in science, research, innovation and the information enterprise that is higher education.
Not only that, she said, but “he’s also very interested in winning, and you don’t stay number one if you ignore science and innovation.”