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Trump’s Blueprint for Failing Our Nation’s Students

The ink had hardly dried on Trump’s executive order promising continued support for HBCUs when he dropped his “skinny budget” in March. Those paying attention to its fine print, i.e., 1.5 pages on education, noticed Trump’s true intentions for public education, especially minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Trump proposes a 13 percent decline in funding to the U.S. Department of Education, with higher education programs comprising most of what will be sliced.

Trump’s “budget blueprint” is lawnmower budget cutting disguised as meticulous evidence-based policymaking. It eviscerates funding primarily to college-access programs because these programs have not proven their effectiveness. Those standing to lose most — unsurprising given the winners and losers according to the current administration’s policies — are low-income students, first-generation students and students of color.

Though the skinny budget is lean on details, cuts to specific programs are clear:

  • TRIO: 10 percent cut
  • GEAR UP: 1/3 cut (pending further “rigorous evaluation”)
  • Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program: $2.4 billion cut (“scant evidence of impact”)
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program: eliminated (“less well-targeted way to deliver need-based aid than the Pell Grant program”)
  • Federal Work-Study: reduced (no amount details)
  • Pell Grant: maintained (but takes $3.9 billion from its $10.6 billion surplus)


As the quotes in the above list indicate, Trump’s proposal repeatedly alludes to the demonstrated ineffectiveness of these higher education access programs. As New America highlighted, TRIO programs and GEAR UP have been the focus of few empirical studies. Those that have been conducted are out of date or yielded inconclusive results, though some TRIO programs have been evaluated and found to have a positive impact.

More evaluations of specific programs are needed and budgeting considerations should be based on their results. In the absence of such rigorous assessments, scores of students will be affected by cuts to these programs. New America reports that 71 percent of undergraduate students from families earning under $30,000 annually and 76 percent of independent recipients from families earning under of $20,000 annually benefit from SEOG.

According to a letter from UNCF President Michael L. Lomax to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, eliminating the SEOG would affect more than 55,000 HBCU students. Reducing funding for work-study would affect 26,000 HBCU students. Evidence-based research has proven the effectiveness of work-study in advancing students toward obtaining bachelor’s degrees.

Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, Dillard President Walter Kimbrough explained that Dillard students stood to lose around $180,000 from SEOG’s termination and $368,000 from work-study funding. They also report that 36,000 HBCU students benefit from TRIO. TRIO would receive $808 million if Trump’s budget were implemented as is, a 10 percent decline from the previous year. GEAR UP would lose $219 million.

While the aforementioned categories relate to other higher education institutions, federal MSI grants are exclusive to MSIs under Titles III and V of the Higher Education Act. These include mandatory and discretionary components, with much of the grants being competitive. The federal financial grant pie for MSIs has not grown by much since the 2008 recession, with some slices shrinking. Most Title III and V discretionary and mandatory funding has been declining. For example, Title III, Part B (HBCUs) mandatory funding dropped from $85 million in 2009 to $79 million in 2016. Title V, Part A (HSI) mandatory funding declined from $100 million in 2009 to $93 million in 2016.

Trump’s budget blueprint appears to maintain funding levels for Title III and Title V in FY 2018. Yet New America found that the blueprint mentions funding at $492 million, which actually represents an $85 million drop from FY 2017. The blueprint omits program-specific funding amounts, so there is no accounting for the decline.

While the Pell Grant is somewhat spared in the budget blueprint, it is still vulnerable. Previous Republican budget proposals called for reducing the annual Pell maximum award. Pell critics malign the grant as an inefficient system ineffective at boosting student success. Some disparage Pell as a handout. Yet Pell unlocks the door to higher education for those who could not otherwise afford it. It is an essential tool for increasing and maintaining enrollment in higher education, especially MSIs. For example, two-thirds of HBCU students receive Pell Grants.

While studies on the direct impact of Pell on enrollment are few, empirical research on financial policy interventions similar to Pell shows that lowering the entrance fee for higher education increases participation. Low-income students are especially sensitive to financial assistance compared to middle- and upper-income students. Most higher education finance experts agree that Pell Grants serve as an essential tool in the enrollment of economically disadvantaged students.

A quick look at the numbers reveals the significance of Pell Grants to MSI students. The 10 states with the most MSIs are Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Based on National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS), the percentage of students in these states receiving Pell Grants increased between 2008 and 2015.

Margins were especially large in Alabama (56 percent of private four-year students to 77 percent), California (32 percent of community college students to 53 percent), Florida (44 percent of public four-year students to 66 percent), and Georgia (42 percent of community college students to 79 percent). Most students in all sectors in all the states with the most MSIs receive some form of federal financial assistance, including SEOG and work-study. Some of the more notable examples for the 2014-15 academic year are:

  • Alabama: 91 percent of four-year public students and 96 percent of four-year private students
  • Georgia: 95 percent of four-year public students and 97 percent of four-year private students
  • North Carolina: 94 percent of four-year public students and 98 percent of four-year private students
  • South Carolina: 97 percent of four-year public students and 98 percent of four-year private students
  • Texas: 91 percent of four-year public students and 96 percent of four-year private students


MSI students tend to be more vulnerable to the fluctuations in state and federal financial support. The vast majority of MSI students rely on financial aid and do not have the financial safety nets that middle- and upper-income students have. The Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania notes that, for every $1,000 increase in tuition, there is a 3 percent decline in college participation. As states and institutional financial aid has mostly declined, federal financial aid (mostly Pell Grants) is pivotal in maintaining college access.

The Trump administration’s attacks on people of color continue via his budget proposal for FY 2018. Trump pays tweet-service to HBCUs while gutting the programs their students rely on. The authors of his budget blueprint can evasively claim such cuts are justified based on an evidence-based approach. Yet economic policy experts have explained how Trump and his administration cannot cut their way to govern effectively a nation, especially if that nation cannot adequately educate its citizens and offer them jobs requiring college credentials.

Dr. Marybeth Gasman is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Minority Serving Institutions. William Casey Boland is a Ph.D. student at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a research associate at CMSI.

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