November 6, 2016
either Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign nor Donald Trump’s has emphasized higher education reform. Clinton, of course, has promised to make “debt-free college available to everyone” and to “liberate the millions of Americans who already have student debt.” Trump’s campaign co-chair issued some statements about higher education before the GOP convention, and Trump made scattered comments on the topic over the ensuing months, but offered his most extended remarks in an October campaign speech in Columbus, Ohio.
On matters of higher education policy, Clinton has much more to say than Trump. Trump, however, speaks to aspects of higher education that lie beyond Clinton’s reach. His relentless attacks on political correctness have defined his campaign: he rejects the American college campuses’ progressive culture. He’s unabashedly vulgar, a deliberate affront to the sensitivity activists who have imposed their regime of bias alerts, trigger warnings, self-censorship, and safe spaces on a generation of college students. Most of what we know about how Trump has regarded and treated women is in conflict with the new Victorianism of “affirmative consent” and Title IX tyranny. He also appeals without qualification to American national pride—and thus inverts the “world citizen” post-nationalism the Left inculcates from the moment college students arrive on campus. Trump defends and practices capitalism, while higher education’s life-tenured theoreticians are infatuated with Marxist formulas. His blunt dismissal of higher education’s most sacred doctrine—man-made catastrophic global warming—enrages the “science-is-settled” climatistas. And Trump’s insouciant superficiality, in which he shrugs off contradictions and happily repeats the same clichés in speech after speech, infuriates the semi-learned, whose deepest vanities are their verbal dexterity and “critical thinking.”
In short, Trump outrages the academic Left. He always talks about higher education despite hardly ever talking about it. After the Nevada Republican caucuses, Trump listed the voting blocs that had broken in his favor. “We won with the highly educated. We won with the poorly educated,” he said. “I love the poorly educated.” Pseudo-educated collegians laughed in derision, but a good many Americans actually took his point, including people other than former steelworkers now employed at Walmart. Though Trump didn’t mean it that way, the “poorly educated” can be taken to include those who earned college degrees without having embraced the politics of victimhood, feminist demonization of men, climate hysteria, and post-nationalism.
Antagonizing a large portion of the Democratic Party’s institutional and ideological base may be a good political strategy, but doesn’t translate easily into policy. Were Trump to be elected, would he take the steps necessary to curtail the Left’s hegemony over higher education? Would he scissor out the programs that have politicized colleges and universities and made them conduits of Democratic Party affiliation? Would he know enough, at least, to euthanize the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights?
Rumors circulate that he’s getting good advice on such issues, but Trump’s public statements neither settle nor clarify the matter. His wrecking-ball approach to the academic Left’s conceits, however, is formidable even prior to being fleshed out. Trump has shown that the tenured radicals have forfeited their cultural authority. Millions of Americans now understand that the smug, self-enthralled voices on NPR belong to people with no particular claim on our attention.
Clinton took her contrasting message about free tuition from Bernie Sanders, whose success in rallying college students to that cause depended, in equal measure, on their naked self-interest and their profound ignorance of economics. But the free-tuition promise’s sinister implications go beyond gouging taxpayers. The easiest way to make something free is to make it worthless: colleges acting like the Wizard of Oz, conferring diplomas for “life experience” and “community experience.” Many existing programs have already moved us a long distance down this road, so it isn’t difficult to imagine a growing number of colleges and universities offering federally-financed programs that award degrees to students whose academic achievements are negligible.
Beyond increasing the number of people holding faux credentials, the Clinton program would also dramatically expand the number of people qualified for public-sector employment—and little else. Lower educational standards necessarily lower the kind of work college graduates can be expected to perform. Since not everyone can get a job at the post office, we will need the functional equivalent of many post offices to employ these graduates. Perhaps creating such jobs will be one facet of Obamacare’s evolution into Hillarycare.
The Department of Education, incidentally, has successfully warred against for-profit colleges and universities by charging that their graduates fare poorly in the job market. Democrats want a high percentage of college graduates to find employment; such graduates are an important part of the party’s electoral base. “Debt-free” college expands both the supply and demand for public service jobs filled by graduates of modest ability. Furthermore, “debt free” will likely be limited to second- and third-tier colleges’ graduates. Wellesley, Bowdoin, Cornell, and Harvard alumni will have plenty of debt, leveraged against their lucrative post-collegiate careers, while public universities fall under Clinton’s plan. Graduates of elite colleges will continue to enjoy the reputational advantages of institutions that have no incentive to compromise their standards to secure the federal subsidies. Clinton’s proposal will, then, further stratify American higher education.
Also, Clinton will have to accommodate those states committed to prestigious programs at their flagship public universities, which figured out long ago how to balance mass higher education for mediocre students with special programs for the intellectually talented and ambitious. So we’ll see more stratification within public universities as well. One of the keys to Hillary’s plan is that, “All community colleges will be free.” The great land grant universities? No, those will still charge hefty tuition.
Hillary’s plan, finally, panders to another key Democratic constituency, blacks and other favored minority groups. She promises $25 billion in new support to “historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions.”
What about Trump? His Ohio remarks addressed student loans, administrative bloat, college endowments, and free speech on campus. His call for capping repayment at 12.5% of the borrower’s income for 15 years, and for loans to be forgiven after that, received the most attention. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to federal student loans, or if this proposal would be combined with a transition to private loans—a step he has advocated on other occasions. President Obama’s current plan is to forgive debt after 20 years.
Paying down student loans might be easier if another part of Trump’s plan is enacted: for colleges to reduce costs and cut tuition. He proposed to end college endowments’ tax-exempt status if they fail to direct their earnings to reducing tuition and institutional debt. The economies he recommends include reducing the number of administrators and rolling back federal regulations that impose substantial compliance costs on universities. Trump called as well for protecting students’ free speech, but gave no specifics.
Sam Clovis, co-chair and policy director of the campaign, has told Inside Higher Ed that Trump would require colleges to share some of the risk in student loans, and also wants to discourage federal student loans from financing the pursuit of degrees in “liberal arts at non-elite institutions.”
The outlines of Trump’s proposals in higher education are, like most of his policy ideas, roughly sketched. The candidate doesn’t appear to believe that voters care that much about the details, or to do so himself. Special interests, of course, care a great deal about those details: imagine Yale or Harvard’s alarm if its oceanic endowment is no longer tax-exempt. Such a change would, among other things, cripple wealthy schools’ capacity to meet protest groups’ ransom demands. Last year, for example, Yale bought off activists protesting that New Haven was the moral equivalent of the Jim Crow South by promising $50 million for their causes.
Trump confronts the higher education establishment, in other words, while Clinton flatters and reassures it. But platforms and policy papers tell us only so much about what policies we should expect from either’s administration. We can speak less speculatively about the political and cultural impact of each one’s victory. Clinton would further solidify the dominance of elite institutions, their graduates’ sense of entitlement, and the American fixation on academic credentialism. Trump would confront and undermine each of these aspects of modern life. His trademark unpredictability runs counter to the educators’ relentless campaign for ever more speech codes, diversicrats, sensitivity cops, and implicit bias diagnosticians.