Like irony? Savor this: President-elect Donald Trump, whose own for-profit higher education venture is the subject of litigation, may just strike an extraordinary series of blows for higher education in general.
Trump's nominee for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is known for her interest in K-12 and not colleges and universities. This means that the deciding factor will be who Trump appoints as Under-Secretary...or, not to go too inside baseball on you, whether he continues the tradition of having the Under-Secretary of Education manage higher ed. That choice will determine just how Trump puts his stamp on not just Trump University but every university in the land.
And if you still like irony, consider that college campuses, which are about as politically liberal as any institution in society, are open-minded about what the Trump administration might do for them. Administrators are hoping for relief from the administrative strictures placed on higher ed, but they really have no idea what to expect. They know what they need, however - a new way to think about paying for college.
"We have a math problem," says Paul LeBlanc, President of the University of Southern New Hampshire, widely regarded as one of America's most successful and intelligently run universities.
"We're going to be 11 million college graduates short by 2025," he says. "We have a huge imperative to figure out the economics of higher ed." Americans increasingly cannot afford higher education and a new model is in order, LeBlanc says.
"As a working-class kid," LeBlanc recalls, "I could pay for college by working construction full-time during the summer and part-time during the school year. That's not possible today, when you think about just how much college costs."
For all Trump's talk about abolishing the Department of Education, that won't be an easy thing to do. If the Department of Education were a bank, it would be one of the biggest in the country, LeBlanc notes. Trump also made a campaign promise not to allow some of America's most financially secure universities to hold onto their endowments, but that's likely to be one more campaign promise ignored after Inauguration Day. Instead, the Trump administration is likely to create a more entrepreneurial approach to funding and regulating spending for higher ed.
Right now, thanks to administrative actions made by President Obama, schools that are not traditional institutions of higher education are able to tap into federal dollars, or what LeBlanc calls "the Title IV ecosystem."
An outstanding example is Flatiron School, a "boot camp" to teach students how to code. They work like crazy for 15 weeks and they come out with the ability to earn an average of $76,000 a year as a full-stack developer. In the past, such individuals would have had to find the money to fund four or more years of college. Now, they become desirable employees in just 15 weeks, and Flatiron boasts a 99% placement rate.
"Traditional higher education business models are strained if not broken," LeBlanc says. "They were built for an industrial age economy. The question is whether the Trump administration will roll back Obama's commitment to creating safe places for innovation, or whether they will actually expand them. It's hard to say right now."
LeBlanc also bemoans the fact that we create silos --"We think about K-12, higher ed, and lifetime learning as independent issues, instead of seeing them as a continuum." As a result, many students are not ready for college, and leaving college, many are not ready for the continuing learning that today's employment requires.
"We need better-prepared students," he says. "Only about 50% across the country are fully prepared to do college work. Over the last 25 years, one of the biggest growth areas for educational publishers has been college readiness. That tells you something."
Another pressing issue that the Trump administration will address is exactly how families can fund college going forward.
"It's gotten ugly," LeBlanc says. "Families can no longer borrow against the equity in their homes to pay for their kids' education, and simply expect that the equity will continue to rise.
"If you feel buried under college debt, or you can't pay your kids' tuition bill, or you've got to have a conversation with Sally where you tell her you can't afford school, people aren't going to blame the White House or the banks. They're going to blame colleges and universities.
"The cost of higher education since 1982 has actually risen at twice the rate of health care. We're the one industry in society that makes health care look good."
LeBlanc says that as the full cost of the Affordable Care Act, in whatever condition it exists during the Trump administration, hits the states, there will be increasing pressure on state budgets to cut back on how much they provide for higher education.
Another issue to be addressed--the dirty little secret of interest rates on student loans. Students are charged 6-7% interest rates on student loans, at a time when interest rates are so low.
"Nobody wants to do anything about that," LeBlanc argues, "because it's a big pool of revenue for the Federal Government. The only person who's really brought it up is Elizabeth Warren, and we all know how she feels about Trump."
So the question is whether and how the Trump administration will work to make college more affordable.
"The 'free college' approach of the Democrats was overly simple," LeBlanc says. "At the same time, it's possible that the Trump administration will take a more aggressive approach to pay as you earn."
That latter policy enables individuals who are social workers or schoolteachers to pay back a workable percentage of their loans and to avoid being crushed by debt because of low salaries.
The Obama model forgives student debt still extant after 20 years; the Trump model that's been kicked around would allow forgiveness at 15 years.
"We have 140,000 utility pole lineman over the next 10 years," LeBlanc says. "In the past, all you needed to get that job was a strong back and high school diploma. Now, you're carrying a laptop up that pole and you better have some technical knowledge.
"Getting university funding handled is essential. We are in a holding pattern until Trump names his Under-Secretary of Education. But we have to work with what we get and remain as optimistic as possible. The country needs that from us."