The political and economic worlds are still reeling from last week's election results and frankly they should be. Donald Trump was a candidate remarkably few expected to win and as such most were wholly caught off-guard about what would happen next if he did. Higher education experts were no exception though they can be forgiven somewhat given how little and how vaguely the President-elect spent discussing it.
That the fiction's become reality has pundits and the press scrambling to say something, anything really, that helps put what a Trump presidency means into perspective when it comes to a higher education infrastructure that manages thousands of institutions, millions of students and billions of state and federal taxpayer dollars.
One week later and given all that's been written to this point it's hard to find an angle not covered or prediction not proposed. Thanks Internet.
In general the higher education community's reaction has been visceral and swift and let's be clear, there are certainly issues where whomever ends up running the Department of Education could definitely raise eyebrows like tinkering with Title IX and the Department's Office of Civil Rights as well as unionization efforts and limitations on overtime rules.
On other things though, like taxing endowments, his ideas are just plain silly and it's clear from the ten minutes he famously devoted to colleges and universities over the past 15 months that he probably hasn't given higher education much thought or even sees it as a priority. Where the meat of federal education policy sits - almost $150 billion a year in student aid - his most detailed plan involves piggybacking off of a Democratic student loan repayment plan, which shouldn't necessarily be cause for alarm.
The conventional wisdom is that higher education takes its lead more from Congress in Republican administrations than the Department of Education. It's evident in the dire predictions and worries littering my Twitter feed right now that folks in the know already get this. From deregulation to private sector involvement in student aid to more corporate and vocational education (read: for-profit education), these aren't "Trump-clamations" as much as they're traditional, and very generic, Republican positions.
Presidents and their cabinet secretaries need a receptive Congress to move agendas. For as much disdain as Trump has generated, at least where higher education is concerned it's clear he's only a proxy for the real target. It's the idea that Republicans will now control both houses of Congress in addition to the White House - and that Democrats never saw it coming - that's the real root of chattering class disdain.
An unexpected shove off the cliffFor a decade now, on some level or another Democrats have controlled the public dialogue around higher education. They've set the agenda, pushed the priorities and found the dollars to implement some pretty far-reaching initiatives.
That's a pedestal that comes with a lot of privilege and power, and the longer it's held the more reaching and powerful it becomes. Everything you say or do is news, the press is constantly seeking your views and printing them, keynote conference speeches abound and every CEO and industry leader with a stake or interest in higher education wants to be your friend because having access to the folks who dictate and implement policy matter.
There can also be some pretty long coattails. Advocating or supporting those commanding the narrative get a special seat at the table that gives them similar benefits. They not only get an outsized voice but also the kind of legitimacy that comes with knowing that even if you're wrong, your ideas still matter more because they actually have the chance of becoming actions.
Even if you just believe in the cause or stand to be a direct beneficiary, it's immensely satisfying to know you're lending a voice to potentially real change.
I'm not saying anything new here. Politics is, and has always been, about power and influence. Yet it's also a career path not known for its stability and anybody who's ever made a go of it will tell you that climbing up the perch is a far more enjoyable trip than the climb down. For democrats, the 2016 election wasn't your typical climb-down event though. It was more like a blindsided shove off the top.
Ten years of defining the higher education industry's rules of play and managing the public narrative around what matters is practically a lifetime in politics and up until Tuesday morning nearly everyone was positioning themselves for at least four or possibly even eight more years. Democrats had overseen the dismantling of the bank-based student lending system, implemented massive income-based loan repayment and public service loan forgiveness programs and were on the verge of crushing the for-profit education market. Two years of groundwork had even put the Holy Grail of liberal higher education policy - free public college - actually within reach.
And just like that a veritable cottage industry of political appointees, advocates and activists - some of whom built or made their careers on that agenda - woke up Wednesday morning to the reality that many of the causes they'd worked so hard to advance would instantly become ideas collecting dust on shelves and that policies they'd worked so hard to pass could very likely be de-prioritized, defunded or outright dismantled.
It was like spending years nurturing the home garden of your dreams only to find you'd suddenly been evicted and the new homeowner had already parked a bulldozer out front.
They woke up to the reality that their narrative about what was important to higher education was no longer the one that would dominate newspaper headlines or presidential summits. To add insult to injury, the issues that would be replacing theirs and getting the outsized attention now would be those that they fundamentally opposed or disagreed with.
In the end, Donald Trump's antagonistic campaign style and moral misgivings gave those who fell a clear public target to direct their angst at. Social media, with its penchant for snark and dramatic proclamations, has given them an outsized public forum to grieve.
The words may be coming out as tirades about what's coming but the underlying message is frustration over what won't. It's the price folks pay for inheriting the mantle of being the political minority.
And the wheels on the bus...None of this is an indictment against Democrats or their policies; wave elections happen to both parties and it'd be crazy to think Republicans didn't endure a very similar humbling when President Obama first took office and Democrats held majorities in both chambers of Congress. That there were already signs of dissatisfaction with the incumbent party leading up to the 2008 election and social media hadn't yet evolved to be such a force for expressing opinion probably worked to dampen the response. Still, in that case most would probably agree that folks could see, and plan for, the climb down that Democrats didn't get this time around.
We can't predict what a Trump presidency will mean for higher education though all signs point to a financial and social rethink about institutions' and students' roles and responsibilities in the education process. The only things we can comfortably predict right now is that change is coming and that nobody gets to sit on the perch indefinitely.
Originally posted on Linked IN by: Carlo Salerno
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