What will President Donald Trump do about student college debt? Or visas commonly used by international students and researchers? Or how universities use their endowments? (He has said he plans to pressure colleges and universities with large endowments to spend more on students or, if they don’t, face loss of their tax-exempt status).
Beyond musings like the one on endowments, Trump had little to say during the campaign about higher education, and some of what the famously fickle businessman did say was contradictory. “Most people expect that higher education policy will be driven by Congress rather than the White House,” says Jennifer Grodsky, BU’s vice president for federal relations.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate education committee, led the University of Tennessee and the House education chair, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Maryland Community College (in North Carolina) earlier in their careers. Both “are interested in reducing federal regulations facing higher education,” says Grodsky, “so they could look at whether all the reports and paperwork we currently submit…are absolutely necessary and serving the public interest.”
In anticipation of today’s inauguration of the 45th US president, we asked BU experts for their take on what a Trump administration and the new Congress might mean on these and other pressing higher education matters.
Visas for international students and scholars
It’s no secret that Trump’s hardline immigration rhetoric spooked many. Yet he vacillated between support for, and criticism of, H-1B visas, the main ticket to the United States for 65,000 international technology workers and 20,000 graduate students who come here on that visa each year.
“We have hundreds of international students sponsored on the H-1B visa by employers after they graduate,” says Jeanne Kelley, managing director of BU’s International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO). “In addition, BU currently sponsors more than 150 researchers and faculty employees for the H-1B category, so any changes…could prove very challenging to our international community.
Kelley says that her office “will have to wait for more details regarding his immigration initiatives,” but that “in most cases, any regulatory changes would require significant time for public comment, approval, and publication.”
The same holds for other visas used by members of the University community. “We are aware of some discussions involving creating a special registry for certain nonimmigrants and possible changes to the visa application process that could prove concerning,” Kelley says, and she and her staff will closely monitor the situation and update the BU community.
Student loan repayment
With college loans standing at $1.3 trillion nationally, the incoming administration’s debt policy is literally “the trillion-dollar question,” says Mark Williams (Questrom’93), a Questrom School of Business master lecturer and executive-in-residence. Trump’s utterances haven’t left him hopeful.
Trump has suggested students have annual paybacks of 12.5 percent of their income over 15 years, followed by loan forgiveness, a change to an existing program that permits 10 percent of income to be paid a year over 20 years. Williams and others who’ve done the math say Trump’s increasing the payment and shortening the payback time would increase the cost to the government by several billion dollars.
Additionally, he says, the Trump campaign’s musing about getting the government out of student lending—leaving that job to private lenders—would increase borrowing costs to students. (Government loans typically have lower interest rates and less stringent payback requirements.) So it would hit low-income students particularly hard, Williams says. He considers that a backward step in an economy that increasingly demands a college degree to earn a good income.
Sexual assault and gender equity
Media reports suggest Trump may go gunning for the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which oversees rules on campus sexual assault complaints. Trump hasn’t mentioned those rules as a concern, but he has said excessively costly regulations might be cut, and universities have had to hire additional staff to comply with Title IX, the law covering gender equity and sexual assault in higher education. Grodsky says that Alexander has criticized past guidance from the civil rights office on complying with Title IX.
But even if change comes, it likely would have little effect, says Kim Randall, BU’s executive director of equal opportunity. Her conversations with fellow administrators handling sexual assault, she says, echo thinking reported at other universities: “At BU, we will continue this work, regardless of whether federal enforcement efforts change. We agree it is important to continue to increase awareness of this issue” to help students reduce sexual misconduct and to steer victims to campus services for help.
The University recently added a staff clinician at the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center, Randall says, and that while Title IX hasn’t required additional staff, in recent years 46 positions at BU have been given roles and training to assist students and employees in sexual misconduct cases.
Some worry that Trump’s proposed tax reforms might cut incentives for charitable giving, including to universities. He has said he would expand the standard deduction, meaning fewer people would feel the need to itemize deductions for charitable gifts; one study found 27 million people who currently itemize (and therefore have an incentive to donate) would be better off simply taking Trump’s new standard deduction.
But Scott Nichols isn’t worried. BU’s senior vice president for development and alumni relations says that the crucial factors motivating giving are donors’ perceptions about the economy and their own level of wealth accumulation, and both offer hope. “Current attitudes about the economy’s future are cautiously optimistic, as reflected in the record stock market since the election,” he says.
As for fiddling with tax incentives, they “are not as important as most people think,” primarily affecting how and when big donors give, not whether they give, Nichols says, adding that the political reality is that any tax changes must be approved by a Congress whose members are connected to numerous philanthropic enterprises.
“History would indicate that any administration will have great difficulty implementing any limitations on charitable giving at nonprofit organizations as important as Boston University,” he says. “Those of us on the fundraising side remain realistically optimistic.”
Before Trump’s campaign suggestion that universities frequently overinvest endowment money that could be more profitably spent directly on students, BU was among the universities with endowments of more than $1 billion that had been asked by Congress to explain how they used those dollars, Grodsky says.
BU’s $1.6 billion endowment actually consists of almost 2,000 funds, created by donors over the course of the University’s history. Legally, the principal of an endowment fund cannot be spent; only the investment income that principal earns is expendable. Even then, the University is often restricted in what it can do with that income.
“It is important to remember or note that college and university endowments are important sources of income in support of the teaching, research, and public service missions of these institutions,” says Martin Howard, the University’s senior vice president, chief financial officer, and treasurer. “College and university endowments represent an accumulation and aggregation of several hundred or thousands of different additions or contributions that are typically restricted by donors to specific purposes, such as establishing student scholarships, creating professorships, establishing support for new programs, or constructing new facilities.”
And since endowments are established in perpetuity, he says, they are “managed for the long term, to strike a balance between the competing demands of funding current operating needs and preserving purchasing power to fund future operations. As such, the ability of most institutions to redirect and increase endowment income for a particularly favored current purpose is very limited.”
BU President Robert A. Brown cosigned an open letter with more than 200 higher education leaders in November that asks government officials to leave the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program alone. Trump has criticized DACA, under which the Obama administration granted temporary permission to live and work in the United States to 700,000 young people whose parents brought them here illegally as children, as unconstitutional.
However, in December he relaxed, without reversing, his rhetoric about deporting those people, leaving the future murky.
“Those benefiting from the DACA program have been strong students and leaders actively contributing to our communities, despite being undocumented through no fault of their own,” says Willis Wang, vice president and associate provost for global programs. “It is important that we support these deserving individuals.
“We encourage any student,” Wang says, “and definitely our international student and scholar population, to contact ISSO if they have any questions or concerns about their own immigration status, or in general. We are here to provide support.”