The New Reality for Higher Education

AACRAO Executive Director Michael Reilly opened AACRAO’s Government Relations plenary at the 2017 AACRAO Annual Meeting by welcoming its newest member, Director William Gil. Since his start mid-February 2017, Gil has met with the offices of over 25 House and Senate members of the education committees and higher education subcommittees to discuss AACRAO’s legislative priorities for the new Congress. Accompanying Gil to these meetings is a synthesized version of the association’s Public Policy and Agenda. The document outlines policy positions on key topics and recommendations for legislation action on the Hill.

The plenary also introduced the recently reestablished Public Policy Advisory Group (PPAG), chaired by Timothy Amyx, Director of Admissions and Registrar, Volunteer State Community College. PPAG will provide an essential practitioner perspective on emerging legislation and public policy matters and serves as a practical resource as AACRAO’s Executive Director and Government Relations team engage on proposed legislation or regulation.

Trump Administration, the 115th Congress, and HEA Reauthorization

Michelle Mott, Associate Director, Government Relations and Communication, continued the plenary by walking attendees through what should be another contentious appropriations process even with Republicans maintaining control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The federal government faces two potential shutdowns this year with the 2017 fiscal budget expiring later this month and the 2018 budget deadline looming in the fall.

Mott also revealed how Trump’s budget blueprint for the 2018 FY gives some indications of his plans for education which includes deep cuts to federal student aid and research programs. Slashing the Education Department's budget by 13.5 percent and targeting federal financial aid, the budget proposal calls for the "cancellation" of $3.9 billion of the Pell grant program's estimated $10.6 billion surplus, money that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had hoped would be used to reinstate year-round grants. The skinny budget would also cut funding for TRIO, GEAR-UP, Federal Work-Study, and would completely eliminate the SEOG program.

Despite the new administration and the new Congress, it could still be a couple of years before the HEA is formally reauthorization. Based on conversations on and around the Hill, Congress will hopefully start work later this year or early next year. Mott pointed out with little attention paid to higher education issues thus far by the Trump administration, one must assume most of the higher ed agenda will be driven through Congress and through discussions relating to the HEA reauthorization.

Mott wrapped up the introductory update by walking attendees through issues the Government Relations department will follow closely. These include, but are not limited to the travel ban, DACA, the BRIDGE Act, regulation retrenchment, transgender students, disciplinary notations, and the IRS Data Tool.

The conversation shifted to an update from Scott Jaschik, Editor, Inside Higher Ed, where he listed out his Top Ten things to note for the new administration and Higher Education.

1. The Trump budget as policy,

2. The significance of a Republican and fiscally conservative congress,

3. Less push for students to go to college,

4. A shift in public policy where education is not the foundation for a better economy,

5. The travel ban,

6. How Trump’s statement that “there are no global citizens” conflicts with the mission statement of most higher education institutions,

7. The value of diversity and inclusion in higher education,

8. Dissent and free speech,

9. Undocumented students, and

10. Debt.

What it all means

President Trump’s lean budget is his policy statement. It is what he campaigned on. American First means large increases in military spending, a wall on the border with Mexico, and resisting tax increases. Such an agenda requires large cuts in many domestic programs. More specifically, he proposes a defense spending increase of $54 billion and cuts the budgets for the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development by 28 percent.

It means after eight years of hearing Barack and Michelle Obama push for all to complete some form of higher education, President Trump is silent on the issue. It means with the threat of travel bans international students are going elsewhere as are US students. It means after a photo-op with HBCU presidents, funding for their institutions remain at current levels under the budget but in the U.S. Department of Education, the budget pledges level funding for Pell Grants, the primary federal program to support low-income students. Further, the administration is calling for the elimination of the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which go to low-income college students, the elimination of GEAR-UP, and the reduction of funding for TRIO programs, which prepare disadvantaged students for college and help them succeed once enrolled.

Stay the course

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? Of course there is. Jaschik encouraged attendees to keep their commitment to education even when it gets challenging. He noted we should pay attention to the lack of political appointments to leadership positions of agencies as it is paralyzing to the civil servants. When your institution seeks guidance it may get no response because of these absences.

He challenged attendees to engage in conversations with influencers beyond higher education to create change and broaden our dialogue. President Trump has put just about everything up on the chopping block which makes for an interesting game of whack-a-mole. To be effective, one has to be able to speak to the larger picture.

When asked if he thought the Trump administration would bring deregulation, Jaschik pointed out that we say we don’t like regulations but we really don’t like regulations we don’t propose. Regulations are not going anywhere with a new administration. They will just change.