On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 8, the stock price of DeVry—the group that owns the ubiquitous for-profit universities of the same name—was $23 per share. Six days later, it was at $28. In fact, most of the publicly traded for-profits are up. Given that their spike occurred on the morning after Election Day, it was almost certainly in reaction to the expectation that the Trump administration will loosen—if not entirely disintegrate—what feeble regulatory measures our current president has managed to impose on institutions that have, until very recently, gotten more than 90 percent of their funding from the federal government, i.e. us. Most of this money comes in the form of subsidized loans, almost half of which go into default at some point. (Given his own debt-management strategies, the president-elect must be very proud.)
Though decent vocational and proprietary institutions do exist amid this morass, far too many players in this industry operate primarily on avarice. Today, they cannot contain their glee. And this is all true even setting aside the fact that the forthcoming occupant of the Oval Office is on trial right now for running a sham university. (Although to be fair, that scam was a wealth-creation scam, not a diploma-mill scam. Always important to keep our scams straight, though over the next four years, it won’t be easy.)
Welcome to the age of higher education under Donald Trump, and buckle up. The return of the for-profit beast, slouching back toward gold-plated Bethlehem, is just the beginning. Here are some other wondrous developments that may await students, their parents, and the beleaguered intellectuals who occupy today’s dusty seminar rooms. Make no mistake: This isn’t even one of the hyperbolic gloom-and-doom scenarios, like the one where our thin-skinned president issues some sort of 1938-style edict requiring an ideological purity test for professors, and only the randos and blowhards on this list are allowed to keep their jobs. No, as cathartic as it might be to surrender to terrified bombastic speculation, for once I think it would be more productive to offer an even-keeled, conservative estimate for what will happen in the next four years to American higher education. Largely because the even-keeled, conservative estimate is already bad enough.
Unsurprisingly, there is little room for higher education on Trump’s rather packed first-100-days agenda (trigger warning: BAD). But for one half-sentence—tucked at the tail of his promise to “redirect education dollars” to bolster some GOP wet-dream, “school choice” thing that further starves the public school system—is a claim to “make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.” During his campaign, Trump made a transparent play for young Bernie Sanders voters by proposing a downright liberal student-loan–repayment plan—capping payments at 12.5 percent of income; forgiving it all after 15 years of payments—but it remains to be seen whether he’ll keep that promise, or how he would pay for it. Or how his friends at the soon-to-be-deregulated banks will like that idea. Or how his treasury secretary (likely one of these guys) will. Reader, my blood pressure—it’s high.
I will hazard a guess that, campaign promises aside, the Trump administration will not be in a hurry to increase, say, the Pell Grant program, but will usher in an influx in private student loans (courtesy, of course, of those newly deregulated banks), which have higher interest rates and markedly less repayment flexibility. The numerous student-loan reform measures the Obama administration enacted and Republicans decried—such as income-based repayment—may get the axe, as Trump looks for ways to scale federal education involvement “way, way, down.” (Alas, all the 19th-century manufacturing jobs Trump has promised will probably not help with loan repayment.)
It is difficult to predict what, if anything, Trump will do or say about the already-volatile political conflicts affecting many American college campuses—or, for that matter, about the apparent uptick in hate incidents since his election. But it is a no-brainer to predict what his massive tax cut for the wealthy will do: absolutely decimate the already-paltry public funding for our country’s state and land-grant universities.
The well-documented corporatization of the American university will likely accelerate under an administration whose cabinet posts are filled with recruits from the private sector (if, that is, they can handle the pay cut), and this will mean an even larger reliance on private fundraising for public universities, which will mean plenty of money for gleaming football stadiums and very little for the physics department. The visibility of the adjunctification problem, which received at least some government lip service in recent years, will all but disappear, with the added bonus that the few adjuncts who could afford to purchase ACA–subsidized health insurance on the exchanges will now get to apply for Medicaid (if that remains an option after it’s block-granted to states).
There is also the small matter of the Obama administration’s pro-education agenda—one that yes, sometimes misfired, but at least it was there. American academics have tried not to take for granted for the past eight years that their president was one of them: an honest-to-God intellectual who spoke their language, valued their contributions (at least nominally), and at very least did not actively wish them harm. It is perhaps an understatement to posit that the incoming president will not have the same interest in the production, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.
Granted, a Trump administration (even one with, say, Ben Carson as secretary of education, busy policing speech on campuses and yanking funding from anywhere too liberal), will not be solely responsible for the cratering of the American university system. That system clearly already has its challenges, not least of which is the self-created supply-and-demand imbalance of its own professors. Further, some of these challenges (too many students who don’t want to go to college believing they must get a four-year degree, for example) indeed emerged under the pro-intellectual presidency of Barack Obama.
But still. Even setting aside the gloom-and-doom prophecies (that may well come to pass), the future of the American intellectual under President Trump brings to mind Paul Celan’s poem “Psalm”: No one kneads us again out of Earth and clay, he writes. No one incants our dust. No one. A Nothing we were, are, will remain, blooming: the Nothing, the No-One’s-Rose. And that, lest I remind you, is the non-apocalyptic scenario. Like I said: Buckle up. We’re about to get a yuge education indeed.