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Elections Have Consequences for Higher Ed

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The 2018 midterm “blue wave” that split party control of the U.S. Congress and narrowed the Republican edge among governors to 27-23 will likely mean political battles over several higher education issues.

In the 2018 elections, Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and flipped seven governorships and seven state legislative chambers. Many of the newly elected Democrats ran on higher ed campaign issues such as “free college” and tougher consumer protections for student borrowers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to pursue a deregulatory agenda.

That’s why continuing partisan divisions across the country bear watching by education reporters, said Thomas Harnisch of the the American Association of State Colleges and Universities during a recent Education Writers Association seminar.

Harnisch and Diane Auer Jones, the principal deputy undersecretary at the Education Department, outlined for the gathered journalists their expectations for higher ed policy developments in 2019.

Republicans: Title IX, Deregulation and More Consumer Data

One of Secretary DeVos’ most newsworthy actions last year was to direct colleges to change the way they pursue allegations of sexual assault to give the accused more rights, such as to cross-examine witnesses against them.

In 2019, Jones said, reporters should expect proposals to eliminate rules that the Trump administration argues are preventing educational institutions from providing students with the experiences and training needed today.

Jones pointed, for example, to overlapping rules colleges face from the federal government, state agencies and nonprofit accrediting agencies, which are the federally recognized organizations that are supposed to decide which colleges are of sufficient quality to deserve federal financial aid.

Most states require colleges to get authorization to operate programs within their state boundaries, even if the school is already predominantly based and licensed elsewhere.

“If you are a student of an (out-of-state), ground-based institution and you choose, perhaps, to do an internship or an externship or clinical rotation back in your home state so that you can save on dorms or apartments or whatever, we don’t necessarily think the school needs to be authorized to operate in that state,” Jones said.

“We need everybody to get back in their lanes,” she said.

To replace some regulations, the Trump administration is instead on track to provide students and parents with more data about colleges — such as alumni earnings and student loan repayment rates for every program in every college — in the hopes that consumers will vote with their feet and drive out of business low-quality programs.

Democrats: Consumer Protection, Gun Control, DACA, Free College

Many newly elected Democrats, fearing that deregulation will allow charlatans to take advantage of unsophisticated students, are pushing their states to fill what they fear is turning into a consumer protection vacuum.

In addition, Harnisch predicted that some Democratic state officials might start to push back against the rules that, in 34 states, allow at least staff to carry firearms on college campuses.

“Democrats are less inclined to support measures to allow guns on campus,” Harnisch noted.

And while “free college” programs have been implemented by Republican governors in several states (such as Tennessee), and are not universally endorsed by Democratic presidential candidates, the concept has also been promoted by several newly elected Democratic governors.

Democrats also tend to favor public services for immigrants, including non-citizens and even the undocumented – something that President Trump has inveighed against. “Democrats are traditionally more supportive of extending in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students and students with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status,” Harnisch said.

Purple Haze

Although Congress is now divided politically, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans holding the Senate majority, most states are dominated by a single party, Harnisch noted.

“I counted 37 states with one-party control of government. So in most of the states you’re either in a red state that’s completely controlled by Republicans, or you’re in a blue state completely controlled by Democrats,” he said. “That means legislation can swiftly go from a committee, to the floor legislature, to the governor’s office.”  He called on reporters to “scrutinize these policies that can rapidly go through the policymaking process.”

But partisan divisions will likely have an impact even in states where one political party dominates. The Trump administration is pushing to fill openings in federal courts that may end up deciding Democratic challenges to firearms regulations, for example. And states deciding to provide public services to non-citizen students will be impacted by federal rules governing DACA, Harnisch noted.

Finally, he added, there is always the issue of money.

“State budgets, oftentimes, are complexly intertwined with federal budgets,” Harnisch said. This may affect how much a state can afford to spend on a “free college” program, he said.

The takeaway: Elections have sweeping and newsworthy consequences for higher education. And that’s only likely to continue. After all, the Trump administration has been making news by challenging colleges’ use of affirmative action in admissions, and by insisting that colleges do more to enable conservative voices to be heard on campuses. And at least 20  Democrats have announced they are running for president in 2020, many of them giving stump speeches on issues such as student debt and free college.