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How Will the 2016 Election Results Reshape Higher Education?

November 15, 2016

With the GOP now in control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House, many different forces will shape the landscape ahead, presenting both challenges and opportunities for colleges and universities.  

Much will be determined in the coming weeks as President-elect Donald Trump builds his transition team and nominates executive appointees. In the interim, Liz Clark, director of federal affairs at NACUBO, shares brief observations and analysis.

1. What did President-elect Trump say about higher education on the campaign trail?

Before the end of September, Trump said little on higher education. However, during speeches in late fall, Trump offered his ideas on how to make colleges more affordable. He floated a number of proposals, from pressuring institutions with large endowments to spend more on students to reshaping the way students repay federal loans.

Trump declared that he would compel colleges to cut tuition and said they could eliminate the "tremendous bloat" in their administrations. However, he also blamed federal regulations for creating burdens and costs.

2. What early executive actions do you expect from President-elect Trump?

There are many legal limitations to what presidents can do with executive orders. If Trump exercises authority with this vehicle early in his term, it is likely to be focused on reversing any Obama administration executive orders.  

Using this vehicle, colleges and universities should prepare for the implications of Trump reversing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program early in his tenure. Many institutions took action to provide undocumented students access to higher education prior to implementation of the DACA program, but reversing this executive order likely will cause students to become newly concerned about the prospects of deportation for themselves and their families.

3. Will the federal government reverse the new overtime rules going into effect on December 1?

It is highly unlikely (and nearly impossible) that the new overtime rules will be delayed before December 1 for a number of reasons. The recent regulatory changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) overtime rules are the result of a 2014 executive memorandum that asked Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to revise regulations under FLSA related to workers’ eligibility for overtime pay. However, the rules were ultimately changed through the federal rulemaking process and neither recent court challenges nor the election results are likely to prevent implementation before December 1. 

Before Election Day, congress approved legislation slowing down implementation of the rules. However, President Obama has veto power until January 20, making enactment of the bill highly unlikely.

Further, while Republicans have control of the Senate, they do not have a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. If the Trump administration revisits this rule, they will likely have to reopen the rulemaking process. If they take this course of action, it is more likely they will slow down or revise the automatic increases to the threshold every three years, beginning on January 1, 2020, than overturn the entire rule.

4. Does single-party control of Congress and the White House pave the way for speedier change in Washington?

While the GOP now has a majority in the House and Senate and control of the executive branch, there are other forces that will influence their ability to swiftly enact Republican party platform aspirations.  

First, any senator can block movement with a filibuster, unless 60 senators vote to block that filibuster. With only a 52-vote majority, Republicans are going to have to work with Democrats to enable passage of almost all legislation (with the exception of budget reconciliation legislation).  

Second, intraparty rancor has resulted in conflicts between moderate pro-business Republicans and the more conservative flank of the party (embodied principally in the House Freedom Caucus); this has stymied action in the recent past and is likely to continue in the coming years. 

Further, Trump was such an unconventional candidate; it will often be difficult to predict where his support will fall on issues that are contentious within the range of GOP perspectives.

5. What does all of this mean for student financial aid?

The outlook here is currently very murky. Congress will reconvene this week and one of the priorities will be to determine next steps on the FY17 federal budget. While moderate Republicans may have been inclined to support maintaining current-year levels of funding, conservative members have been arguing strongly for deeper cuts in discretionary spending. The return of year-round Pell seemed possible—the Senate expressed support in the current draft, but the House did not—but now seems unlikely. As Congress reconvenes for their lame-duck session in Washington, we hope to have a better understanding of how Republican leaders are reading Election Day results and the direction they are likely to take with federal spending.

It will  take time for a Higher Education Act reauthorization package to emerge, as Trump will want his administration (or his political appointees in the Education Department) to influence the shape of such legislation. However, colleges and universities should prepare for legislation that proposes decoupling accreditation and federal financing, encourages new systems of learning to compete with traditional institutions, and establishes a new “risk-sharing” structure between students, banks, and colleges around student loans.

6. Will we see comprehensive tax reform soon?

House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI) made clear early this year that tax reform is a top priority. He asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) to lead a task force charged with developing a tax reform blueprint. Trump’s interest in tax reform and infrastructure spending could result in swift action on this front.

Through the budget reconciliation process, Trump and Congressional Republicans will be able to move priorities forward in this area speedily. The budget reconciliation procedure would, among other things, limit Senate debate, and prohibits any senator from filibustering the legislation.

While detailed drafts are not yet available, NACUBO is preparing to respond to a wide-ranging scope of proposed changes to higher education that could impact students and their families, the higher education workforce, and the fundamental business operations of colleges and universities.

College and university business officers should be prepared to respond to proposals expeditiously when they emerge.

7. Will Obamacare be repealed?

It is highly unlikely that the Affordable Care Act will be repealed in its entirety. Trump and the GOP Congress will undoubtedly roll back portions of the legislation (possibly the much-criticized “Cadillac Tax”) but it will be difficult for Republicans to take away certain provisions favored by taxpayers and to offer alternatives for those that would otherwise be uninsured. 

8. Who will be the Secretary of Education?

It is too soon to tell. Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and 2016 presidential candidate, was initially floated as a possibility, but an adviser announced on November 15 that Carson is not interested in a position with the administration. Early reports indicate that Williamson M. Evers, education expert at the Hoover Institution, also may be under consideration.

9. Will regulatory burden be addressed in the coming years?

Colleges and universities will face a somewhat friendlier reception when making the case about costs and burdens associated with regulations. There will be calls to eliminate the Department of Education, but such drastic reform is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the public’s concern with college costs complicates just how much red tape lawmakers will consider removing from the sector. What is clear is that there will be more opportunity to revisit rules and regulations that institutions of higher education find unhelpful to students, families, and colleges.

10. What other trends might impact colleges and universities?

In his tenure, President Obama has been both a tremendous supporter of higher education and one of its sharpest critics, with a focus on access and affordability. A GOP-controlled Washington will continue to raise concerns about college costs.  

Republicans will also likely sharpen other critiques, including concerns about liberal bias at institutions. These concerns are likely to gain traction in the new environment in Washington.

In recent years, racial tensions on college campuses have resulted in protests, administrative turnover, and renewed investments in creating environments where all students can feel less anxious and more welcome, and focus on being students. 

The 2016 Election Day results would likely have forced this conversation on race and diversity to continue no matter the outcome. Institutions of higher education must continue to invest in promoting discourse that spans the divides that were made so evident on November 8.


Liz Clark
Senior Director, Federal Affairs