Implications of Trump’s presidential victory for U.S. higher education

Author: Jay Dee

Trump 2016Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential election has produced a great deal of uncertainty in the U.S. higher education community.  This uncertainty relates to Mr. Trump’s highly unconventional campaign in which he espoused views that run counter to the values of many colleges and universities, particularly in relation to internationalization, diversity, and scientific inquiry.  Predicting how a Trump presidency would affect higher education is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Trump offered no specific higher education policies during his campaign.

Despite this high level of uncertainty, a Trump presidency is unlikely to substantially change the basic operations of higher education institutions, at least in the short term.  U.S. higher education is a large, decentralized system where institutions have a relatively high level of autonomy, and where state governments have more direct influence on institutions than the federal government.  Therefore, the largest effects of a Trump presidency will likely emerge not through specific policies, but through changes in the priorities espoused for higher education, and in the image that the U.S. projects to the rest of the world.

Based on Mr. Trump’s public statements, we can anticipate the following effects of his presidency:

  1. The U.S. may become a less desirable destination for international students and scholars.
  2. The for-profit higher education sector will likely experience a much more favorable regulatory environment.
  3. Tax cuts and spending reductions will likely accelerate the trend toward the privatization of public higher education.
  4. Skepticism toward science could reshape the priorities of federally-funded research.

Immigration and internationalization

The most obvious impact of a Trump presidency will be in the area of immigration and its potential effects on the internationalization of U.S. higher education.  Mr. Trump is an avowed nationalist and anti-globalist. He has vowed to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration, and he has pledged to deport those who came to the U.S. without legal authorization. He has called for “extreme vetting” of visa applicants who come from world regions that are suspected of having links to terrorism, and he has proposed an outright ban on Muslim people from entering the U.S. until more effective border security systems are put in place. Stricter immigration and visa policies could negatively impact international exchanges and limit student and faculty mobility into the U.S.

Even if Mr. Trump’s immigration policies are not implemented, his public statements have created a climate in which international students and scholars are concerned about whether they remain welcome in the U.S. (Redden, 2016).  The U.S. has long been a top destination for international students and faculty members, and these students and scholars have contributed significantly to the quality of U.S. higher education.  However, if Trump’s presidency brings into open display a society that views foreign-born people with suspicion, international students and scholars are likely to study and conduct their research elsewhere.

The associated loss of academic talent could constrain economic and research development in the U.S. Mr. Trump himself has acknowledged as much.  In August 2015, Mr. Trump posted the following statement on Twitter: “When foreigners attend our great colleges and want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.”  As of now, however, Mr. Trump has not reconciled his various understandings of immigration, higher education, and research innovation.

Just as Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has had a chilling effect on international students and scholars, his public pronouncements have also triggered protests and concerns among U.S. domestic students.  During the campaign, Mr. Trump attacked colleges and universities for promoting “political correctness.”(Jaschik, 2016). These attacks can be viewed as a backlash against the diversity initiatives that many colleges and universities have developed to improve access and degree completion rates for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump has stated his opposition to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary relief from deportation for individuals who came to the U.S. illegally as children. This program acknowledges that most undocumented youth are brought into the U.S. by parents or other relatives.  Undocumented youth typically have no role in the decision to come to the U.S., and therefore, they should not be targeted for deportation.  Undocumented college students are not eligible for any federal financial aid programs.  The DACA program simply provides a two-year, renewable deferral from deportation.  Such deferrals are unlikely to continue under the Trump administration.

For-profit higher education

The Trump administration is likely to overturn or not enforce many of the rules that the Obama administration put in place to regulate the for-profit higher education sector (Kreighbaum, 2016). The Obama administration established borrower defense rules that allow a student’s loans to be discharged if the student was defrauded by the institution.  These rules attempt to hold institutions accountable when graduates do not earn enough salary to pay back their student loans.  These rules were established largely in response to poor graduation rates at for-profit institutions and concerns that these institutions were not providing students with adequate skills for employment.

While the Obama administration aggressively enforced these rules, the Trump administration is likely to reduce regulatory oversight for the for-profit sector. Mr. Trump himself established a for-profit educational entity – Trump University – which was not a degree-granting institution, but instead provided a package of training courses related to real estate development. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits filed by former Trump University students who claimed that the institution had defrauded them of their tuition dollars (Eder, 2016).

Mr. Trump’s governing philosophy for education is likely to be shaped by a strong belief in deregulation and market-based reforms. Mr. Trump has indicated that he will nominate Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. She is a strong supporter of market-based reforms in the K-12 education sector (charter schools, voucher programs), and her preference for relying on the market will likely extend to higher education policy (Strauss, 2016).

Privatization of public higher education

The trend toward the privatization of public higher education is likely to accelerate under the Trump administration. The presidency and both houses of Congress will be controlled by the Republican Party, which has vowed to cut taxes and reduce spending. If tax cuts and spending reductions are enacted, then the federal government will send fewer dollars to the states for various government programs, and state governments will be pressured to fund projects that the federal government will no longer support.

When state governments experience budget constraints, they typically reduce funding for public higher education, while they try to maintain funding for K-12 education, law enforcement, health care, and other services that are highly valued by the public (Delaney & Doyle, 2011). And when state funding to public higher education is reduced, student tuition fees tend to increase at rates much higher than inflation.

While his tax and budgetary policies are likely to reduce public funding and increase student tuition, Mr. Trump has expressed concerns regarding the cost of higher education. He urged institutions to spend more of their endowment funds on student financial aid (Jaschik, 2016). But institutions with large endowments already spend heavily on student financial assistance, and the need for more financial aid is with students who attend institutions that have small endowments and limited resources.

National science policy

The directors of the agencies that fund university research, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, will be appointed by President Trump. Mr. Trump and many elected officials from the Republican Party are skeptical of science and have rejected the research consensus on climate change. When Trump appointees begin to manage the federal agencies that distribute research funding, they are likely to set new priorities.

Politically popular programs that fund university medical research are likely to continue, as are programs that emphasize technology transfer between universities and industry. Academics who seek funding for environmental or climate research, however, might encounter greater scrutiny of their proposals. And social science research in areas related to inequality might be deemed by Republican leaders as advancing a “politically correct” agenda and therefore will also be subject to greater oversight.

Without question, U.S. higher education institutions will encounter a political environment that is skeptical of internationalization and immigration, that values a deregulated marketplace, that will advance tax cuts and spending reductions, and that will set different priorities for research funding.  How colleges and universities will respond to this new environment remains an open question.  The highly decentralized system of U.S. higher education, however, provides an opening for college and university leaders to design programs and policies that reaffirm their commitments to international engagement, diversity, and scientific inquiry.

About Jay R. Dee


Professor Jay R. Dee is the director of the Higher Education Doctoral Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, USA. His research interests include organizational theory, higher education governance, faculty professional development, and the academic work environment. He has conducted several research studies that have examined academic leadership in colleges and universities. Professor Dee is the co-author (with James Bess) of Understanding College and University Organization: Theories for Effective Policy and Practice (Stylus, 2008), as well as Bridging the Divide between Faculty and Administration: Understanding Conflict in the Academy (Routledge, 2014).


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One response to “Implications of Trump’s presidential victory for U.S. higher education”

  1. Austin Atwood says :

    Nice explanation for uncertainty in higher education

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