Government

Donald Trump Actually Talked About Higher Education on Thursday. Here's What He Said.

October 14, 2016

AP
Donald Trump said on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, that if elected president, he would "take steps to drive down college costs by reducing the unnecessary costs of compliance with federal regulations so that colleges can pass on the savings to students."
Donald J. Trump did something shocking on Thursday, something he hasn’t done in the entirety of his unusual campaign for president: He talked with some substance about his plans for higher education.

At a rally in Columbus, Ohio, the Republican nominee ventured into what was for him uncharted territory, proposing the simplification of income-based repayment plans, decrying burdensome government regulations and their effect on college costs, and ripping what he described as the culture of political correctness on campuses.

Much of the rhetoric resembled well-worn conservative talking points, and Mr. Trump made few concrete proposals. But few is more than zero. That Mr. Trump touched on higher ed at all is surprising, especially given that he chose to do so for the first time with less than a month to go before the election. The strategy may be aimed at luring a swath of voters, twenty-somethings, who may have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries and so are viewed as less attached to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

In any case, here's a rundown of what Mr. Trump said:

Income-Based Repayment Plans

In his most substantive remarks, Mr. Trump proposed his own version of an income-based repayment plan for borrowers who are paying back federal student loans. Under his proposal, the amount borrowers pay per month would be capped at 12.5 percent of their income, with all outstanding debt being forgiven after 15 years of steady repayment. The Obama administration’s version of income-based repayment generally caps payments at 10 percent of income, while forgiving debt in most cases after 20 years.

Higher ed’s wonk crowd took to Twitter on Thursday to note that Mr. Trump’s plan — as described for the first time in the speech — appeared to be more generous to recent graduates than President Obama’s policy is.

Expanding income-driven repayment plans has been a major initiative on the higher-ed agenda of Mr. Obama during his second term.

Administrative Bloat

Mr. Trump railed against “administrative bloat” and the burdensome government regulations, he said, that encouraged it. He then cited a Vanderbilt University study, familiar to close observers of higher ed, that found the institution had spent 11 percent of its budget, or about $150 million, complying with federal regulations in 2013-14.

The findings of that study have been repeated in many places, including in front of a U.S. Senate committee. But it has been at least somewhat debunked, thanks in part to reporting by The Chronicle. The university long declined to release the methodology behind the study and other specifics. Eventually, the university did provide some detail, saying, for instance, that most of the $150 million was associated with research. The university also cautioned that the study was not "meant to be the definitive word on regulatory costs at colleges and universities."

"As president," Mr. Trump said on Thursday, "I will immediately take steps to drive down college costs by reducing the unnecessary costs of compliance with federal regulations so that colleges can pass on the savings to students in the form of lower tuition." He did not elaborate.

Mr. Trump did suggest, however, that his administration might reserve the right to judge colleges based on “performance.” Acknowledging that higher education is a big tent, including not just four-year colleges but also vocational institutions, the Republican candidate said, “We must hold all schools equally accountable.”

'Reconsidering' Tax-Exempt Endowments

One tool to force colleges to cut costs, Mr. Trump said, would be to reconsider whether "those with huge endowments deserve to keep those endowments tax-exempt."

He continued:

Some schools are paying more to hedge funds and private-equity managers than they are spending on tuition and tuition assistance, while taxpayers are guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars of student loans to pay for rising tuition costs. We want universities to spend their endowments on their students, not themselves. We have to take care of our students. They need to use the money to cut the college debt, and they have to cut the college tuition. They have to do it.

There's been some renewed talk recently in Congress of casting greater scrutiny on private colleges' endowments. Earlier this year, two key congressional committees sent letters to the 56 private institutions whose endowments were worth more than $1 billion in the 2014 fiscal year, demanding information about how the funds are used.

2 Other Rhetorical Themes

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump is no fan of political correctness on campus. "In the past few decades, political correctness — oh, what a terrible term — has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship, where students are silenced for the smallest of things," he said. "You say a word somewhat differently, and all of a sudden you’re criticized — sometimes viciously. We will end the political correctness and foster free and respectful dialogue."

He offered no specifics on how he would end political correctness.

Mr. Trump also connected his larger anti-immigration platform with the theme of a college education, saying that college graduates were having their jobs taken by immigrants who had arrived in the United States on H1B visas (a familiar target for Mr. Trump).

Watch Mr. Trump's full remarks.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.