24 Jan

D.C. attack on higher education felt in Oregon

It’s clear, as we mark the one-year mark of the Donald Trump show, that the Official Dislike list includes immigrants, many of the countries they come from, corporate taxes and reporters who ask annoying questions.

But there is also a clear dislike, and multiple moves against, the nation’s higher education institutions, part of what The Atlantic calls “The Republican War on College.”

This regime is deeply suspicious of people who think they know something.

Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, calls the situation “alarming,” noting that “We are getting a message from some members of Congress and the president that’s hostile to higher education.”

The effects are reaching toward Oregon colleges and universities, creating what Wim Wiewel, former president of Portland State University and current president of Lewis & Clark College, calls “a bit of a sense of a wholesale assault.”

Efforts undermining higher ed include the new tax bill, the approaching Higher Education Reauthorization act, the administration’s proposals for sharp cuts in research funding and official attitudes making the United States about as inviting to foreign students as mandatory gym. After a long tradition of government considering higher education as an asset – it produces medicines, weapons and taxpayers – higher ed largely serves the current administration as a target.

The new tax bill, among other things, limits the deductibility of interest on student loans, and for the first time taxes the income of the largest college endowments. (The tax doesn’t bring in much, but it sends a message.) The House version would have taken a small nick out of the Reed College budget; the Senate raised the threshold enough to exclude all Oregon colleges – for now.

The Senate also blocked the House’s effort to turn tuition waivers, given to graduate student and college employees, into taxable income, which could have given a number of students the gift of a tax bill larger than their income.

(The tax bill, with its limit on state tax deductibility, also squeezes high income tax states like Oregon, and decades have shown that state squeezes are felt first in the higher ed budget.)

The next blast comes in the impending Higher Education Reauthorization , recently pushed through the House education committee on a party-line vote after the Democrats first saw the bill just before a 14-hour markup session. “In the end,” says Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a senior Democrat on the committee, “it will make it harder for low-income students.”

Elements include charging student loan interest earlier, from the time of borrowing instead of graduation; eliminating programs of student loan forgiveness after years spent in certain professions; and eliminating graduate students from federal work-study programs – as well as dropping the funding from a 3-1 federal match to 50-50.

But the proposed bill does follow Trump administration policy of eliminating the Obama administration’s limitation for-profit colleges, established because the for-profits too often left students with no useful degrees and sizable debt – to be largely covered by the feds. Curbing that outcome is now considered an interference with school choice.

For next year’s budget, the Trump administration is proposing cutting federal research spending in half. (As noted, the administration is suspicious of people who know things, or want to learn them.) This would be a major hit to universities around the country; in Oregon, it could land heavily on Oregon State, where a major oceanography research grant just raised the university’s annual research funding to $441 million. Oregon State president Ed Ray says he’s worried about it “very much,” and that universities might depend more on non-federal research funding, such as corporations and foundations.

Bonamici says that Congress looks more favorably on research, and “Fortunately, it’s the legislative branch that makes appropriations.” But as the events of the last week have shown, the D.C. budget process is now a roller coaster with very weak guard rails.

Currently, Washington undermines higher ed in another way unrelated to budget. Increasingly, American universities have been drawing international students, who pay out-of-state tuition and build global reputations. Now, says Schill, “Students are wondering whether this is a congenial place to go to school,” and the U of O’s international applications are down, part of a national trend.

The roots of the hostility are not hard to see. Stephen Moore, an economist and journalist who advised the Trump campaign, reflected considerable conservative opinion by calling universities “playpens of the left,” and a recent Pew poll found 58 percent of Republicans believing that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.”

It’s certainly true, as Ed Ray notes, that higher ed has always been criticized, and that its current critics are still generally enrolling their children. But American higher education has been strengthened by a general understanding that the system is an economic asset and a route for social mobility – and dismissing that awareness will lead to major losses.

It’s a problem if our model of higher education is Trump University.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian 1/21/18.
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