Washington — On the same day that President-elect Donald Trump visited his soon-to-be predecessor at the White House, speculation continued over how a Trump administration will tackle an array of higher education issues that range from student loan debt to campus sexual assaults.
Experts assembled for a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute Thursday agreed that, while it’s too early to say precisely how things will shake out for education policywise, a few things — including a diminished regulatory role for the U.S. Department of Education — are all but certain.
“I think it’s unclear how his advisory shuffle is going to work itself out, but there are a couple of things that are almost inevitable,” said Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Such near certainties include a scaling back of any loose pieces of regulatory framework that are not federal law.
“Trump is going to say, ‘Well, geez, here’s a lot of stuff that’s not law of the land that we’re going to unwind,” Hess said.
Andy Smarick, also a resident fellow at AEI, said the rollback of the federal role in education may be piecemeal and low-key.
“If you have a secretary of education who thinks things can be done in the states and he staffs the department with people who are not freelancing, there might not be a headline of ‘Trump does X, Y, Z,’” Smarick said. Rather, he said, there might be a multitude of different things happening by the federal government “backing up” and allowing things to happen at the state and community level.
While Trump’s rumination on scrapping the Department of Education altogether is unlikely, there’s a risk of a significant rollback of the federal role of protecting historically underserved groups, said Scott Sargrad, managing director of the K-12 education policy team at the Center for American Progress.
“If that happens, it’s a huge risk,” Sargrad said. “Whether (Office of Civil Rights) enforcement or enforcement of existing laws, I’m hopeful that’s not something that happens.”
One of the more interesting exchanges took place when panelists broached the topic of what Trump might do to alleviate student debt and high default rates.
When Jason Delisle, also a resident fellow at AEI, cited a statistic that 8 million people have defaulted on student loans — a million more than a year ago — and that the situation represented an opportunity for Trump to develop a solution, someone quipped that Trump had “extensive experience in bankruptcy.”
“He is the ‘king of debt,’” Delisle conceded, using Trump’s own description of himself, “and would know something about how to get out of it.”
Other portions of the panel were more intense and, perhaps, portended some of the heated discussions that are likely to ensue about how to handle undocumented students and campus sexual assault once Trump assumes the presidency.
For instance, when Hess criticized recent Department of Education efforts to lower the standard of proof used in sexual assault cases on campus from “beyond reasonable doubt” as “creating enormous problems of jurisprudence on campus,” Sargrad countered that the cases are not criminal.
Hess said the accused are still being shamed and expelled even when the actual facts are in doubt. Sargrad cited a “history of siding with the accused” and said “it’s not a bad thing” to flip the balance.
“We’re not convicting. These aren’t courts of law,” Sargrad said.
“They sure aren’t,” Delisle said. “That’s the problem. This shouldn’t even be part of the conversation in higher education policy.”
Hess and Sargrad also clashed on what should happen to students who are children of illegal immigrants.
“One of the reasons Donald Trump won is he expressed Americans’ frustration with an unwillingness to talk firmly about people in the United States working illegally and are here illegally, and that leads to frustration,” Hess said, noting that children of illegal immigrants “absorb” limited educational resources.
“I don’t want to see schools make a priority of organizing their instructional focus or practices in order to make comfortable students whose families are not legally in the United States,” Hess said.
Sargrad countered that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such children are entitled to the same public education as everyone else.
Panelists also speculated on whom Trump might appoint as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.
While retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson’s name has been mentioned in some circles, Smarick said the next education secretary will likely be a current or former governor or state superintendent of education.
He said ideally it would be “someone whose disposition and experience, temperament” leads them to say that, no matter what grand scheme conservatives in Washington may have, it doesn’t necessarily mean the federal government has to pursue it.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.