Government

Everyone’s Waiting for Trump’s Higher-Education Platform. In the Meantime, Here are Some Clues.

May 24, 2016

Patrick Semansky, AP Images
Donald Trump (shown speaking at St. Norbert College, in Wisconsin, in March) hasn’t released a plan, but he has commented on student loans, international students, and whether to dismantle the Education Department.
What might a Donald J. Trump presidency mean for higher education? Now that the Republican field has narrowed to a single candidate, it’s inevitable that higher-ed policy watchers are wondering. But it’s not an easy question to answer.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the remaining Democrats, have each unveiled comprehensive higher-education plans. Not so Mr. Trump.

Representatives of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns are slated to attend a presidential forum put on by the Committee for Education Funding, an advocacy group, in Washington this week. The group has not been able to line up a representative of the Trump campaign, though "we’ve done as much outreach as possible," said Ally Bernstein, a member of the committee’s board. When the group held a similar forum during the 2012 campaign season, representatives of both President Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, attended, Ms. Bernstein said.

Mr. Trump has no previous experience in elected office that fans or foes can point to. On top of that, he just doesn’t seem to be that interested in talking about policy. Ahead of the first Republican presidential debate, an article in The New York Times attributed Mr. Trump’s appeal to "unfettered style," not "his positions," and said "he may be the first post-policy candidate."

Besides, as the Times article and many others have pointed out, when Mr. Trump does describe his positions, he reveals them to be inconsistent.

So we’re left looking for crumbs. Some observers have speculated from Mr. Trump’s experience with Trump University — he faces several lawsuits related to the shuttered venture — that he would support for-profit colleges. But Trump U. might not have much to tell us about its namesake’s approach to higher education. After all, Trump U., which offered seminars on business techniques, never had much in common with the big players in for-profit education. (It even lost the "University" moniker after a court ruling declared it an unlicensed educational institution, and was renamed the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.)

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed interviewed Sam Clovis, a national co-chairman of Mr. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president (and a professor on leave from Morningside College) about the campaign’s potential higher-education ideas. In that conversation, Mr. Clovis gave a loose sense of proposals such as returning to a bank-based student-loan system and having colleges share in the risk of student loans. Those are both standard-issue Republican ideas: When he was running for president, Mr. Romney pledged to reverse the 2010 law barring banks from issuing federal student loans. And Senate Republicans have discussed risk sharing — which has bipartisan support — at least as a general concept.

Beyond those broad outlines, though, it has been difficult to pin down anything that might amount to Mr. Trump’s higher-ed policy agenda. In the absence of such details, news outlets, think tanks, and higher-education groups have documented Mr. Trump’s past statements on education, and despite his decades in the public eye, what they’ve come up with provides only hints. Here’s what we have to work with:

His education. As previously reported in Forbes, Mr. Trump has said a bit about what he learned at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania, where he finished his undergraduate degree. In The Art of the Deal, his 1987 business-book-cum-memoir, he wrote:

"Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates, and that I could compete with them just fine. The other important thing I got from Wharton was a Wharton degree. In my opinion, that degree doesn’t prove very much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously, and it’s considered very prestigious."

Student loans. When Simpson College students who interviewed Mr. Trump at an on-campus event last spring asked about rising college costs, he told them, "I know all about the student-loan stuff," according to The Des Moines Register. "I’ve been asked that question so many times by so many great young people that are up to here with debt," Mr. Trump continued. "They don’t know what to do. And I tell them, You’ve got to get jobs."

It’s a point he reiterated several months later in an interview with The Hill, which noted that Mr. Trump "wouldn’t go into specifics, but promised he would create jobs if elected president." In the same interview, Mr. Trump said that the government should not profit from student loans: "That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off — I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans," he said.

Whether in fact the government profits from student loans is a thorny and contested question of accounting methods. But Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts — who doesn’t see eye to eye with Mr. Trump on much — makes a big point of saying that it does.

International students. Despite his views on immigration in general (his platform includes "mandatory return of all criminal aliens" and "enhanced penalties for overstaying a visa"), Mr. Trump has argued that international students who come to the United States for college should be allowed to stay here and work after graduation, including this comment in a tweet he sent last summer:

The Education Department. Mr. Trump is no great fan of the U.S. Department of Education, though his stated reasons have to do with elementary and secondary education, not higher education.

Last August, Mr. Trump told reporters that the department had done "a terrible job," arguing that the United States spends more on education than other countries while getting worse results. In the same interview, he stated that he "does not believe in" the Common Core high-school standards. Regarding the Education Department, he asked, "Do we allow little pieces" to survive? Then he answered: "Yes. But largely, it should be shut down."

When the topic came up again in a TV interview this past fall, Mr. Trump said that he "may cut" the Education Department as a way to rein in spending, saying that education should be a local concern.

The idea of cutting the Education Department isn’t unique to Mr. Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, had a plan to ax it, and over the past couple of election cycles several other Republican candidates, including Sen. Rand Paul and the former Texas Governor Rick Perry, have said that they would get rid of it. While cutting or eliminating the department has been floated repeatedly, experts are still unclear as to what exactly that would mean, or how it would work — assuming that it is in fact a policy idea, not just a political talking point.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.