U.S. Higher Education vs. the Government

01/17/2018 08:50 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

There has always been a historic tension between America’s colleges and universities and the government, whether at the state or federal level. It’s unavoidable. Once the government began to fund students and institutions in the late 20th century, its leaders believed that they had a right and responsibility to oversee the use of government funds.

For most of the national trade associations representing higher education, three goals emerged:

  • Protect the level of state and federal support that higher education received from them
  • Preserve and safeguard fundamental underpinnings like the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities
  • Monitor and argue against excessive regulation

As government discretionary spending decreased -- with debt repayment levels rising and deficit financing the order of the day -- state and federal spending became increasingly less stable. Today, America governs at the federal level by Continuing Resolution careening from one deadline to the next. At the state level, annual deadlines are seldom met unless mandated by state law.

In a world of last-minute, lobbyist-infused backroom deals, it’s impossible to plan accurately and consistently on most college campuses. You never quite know how the cards will play out.

In recent years, most in the higher education leadership have worried that, in the absence of discretion. the federal government will turn increasingly to regulation. The Obama years provide numerous examples to justify such concern. Further, the government seems to be in a never-ending dance over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, further complicating higher education’s relationship with an important partner.

Trump Policies and Actions Heighten Higher Education’s Sense of Alarm

Since last year’s presidential election, many have slightly shifted their concern about the federal role in government. There seem to be a number of forces at work within the government that have heightened a sense of alarm.

The first is that higher education does not seem to have the champions that it used to in the federal executive and legislative branches.

To illustrate, the passage of the new tax bill was problematic. Two examples show why. Proponents suggested a tax on graduate scholarships that ultimately did not make it into the final draft of the bill. The effect would have been disastrous for graduate and professional education. Second, earlier tax bill drafts called for a tax on the country’s largest endowments, reportedly to encourage better use of endowment spending.

Let’s set aside the obvious question about why a government that cannot govern or budget effectively is a necessary and sufficient monitor of higher education spending. In the end, it is what it is.

Active Efforts by Trump Administration to Diminish Higher Education

The second is that there appears to be an active effort – in rhetoric and action -- by President Trump and his supporters to diminish the stature of American higher education. Leaders of America’s major research universities have agreed among themselves to take more active public positions in an effort to counter souring public perceptions of higher education. Without a coordinated plan – and the support of their trustees and campus communities – there is likely to be a limit on whether their efforts will work.

Immigration Actions Mean Fewer International Students


The third is that “America first” policies on immigration have a deleterious effect on many colleges and universities. America is the global leader in providing high quality education at any level. It attracts the best and brightest from around the world.

The impact of quota policies – and the impressions created of them and held by international students and their families – diminishes the talent pool within the American workforce. It also decreases foreign tuition payments, the ability to sustain a global campus, and the intellectual exchanges necessary to keep the next great ideas coming.

In an American workforce approaching full employment, the need for more workers – and the best educated among them graduating from American colleges and universities – will be a growing problem if a strong economy holds.

These shifting concerns suggest a growing need to be aware of shifting emphases in the relationship between higher education and the government. They raise legitimate questions:

  • Will the government at the state and federal levels continue to be a steady, reliable and consistent funder of higher education?
  • Does the government still see higher education as integral to its sense of commonwealth?
  • Lacking discretion, will the government turn to a stringent regulatory environment to enforce its political goals, however inconsistent they appear to be?

Higher education would be well advised to have clear policy goals as we move forward. It must also look for ways to work with Congress and the Trump Administration to safeguard and advance its goals.

But the days of concerns over money, taxes, and regulation levels are gone. While we can hope for the best, the willingness of the president to use executive action to change the regulatory environment is something that we are free to ignore at our own peril.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.

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