By Megan Loock
Elm Staff Writer
In 2019, Congress listed the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 as its top legislative priority, according to their website. It never made it past the Senate.
These plans were halted when the Trump Administration laid out their own opposing negotiations, planning to set limits on the amount of loan money students are able to borrow, according to Vox.
“First passed in 1965 to ensure that every individual has access to higher education, regardless of income or zip code, the HEA governs student-aid programs, federal aid to colleges, and oversight of teacher preparation programs. It is generally scheduled for reauthorization by Congress every five years to encourage growth and change,” the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said on their website.
The last reauthorization of the HEA was in 2008, during former President Barack Obama’s first term.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on college students and their parents. The Commonwealth Fund estimates that as many as 7.7 million workers lost jobs as of June 2020 because of the pandemic-induced recession, and therefore, millions of people are struggling to pay extensive tuition bills.
“Some colleges and universities have increased financial aid to students in need, but others,
facing their own financial challenges, have said they cannot afford to offer more,” The New York Times said.
The decision to defer the reauthorization of the landmark bill has only created more anxiety among college students and their parents.
“Two-thirds of college students — roughly 13.3 million undergraduates — said the coronavirus crisis has changed how they feel about their financial future, according to WalletHub’s recent 2020 College Student Financial survey,” CNBC said.
The Trump Administration’s deference of the HEA isn’t making the financial situation for American college students any better.
On Oct. 19, 2019, “House Democrats offered their vision for overhauling the federal higher education law, introducing…a rewrite that would boost federal funding for low-income students, simplify how borrowers repay federal student loans, incentivize states to make community colleges tuition-free,” U.S. News said.
If the reauthorization of the HEA happened in 2019 as planned, the financial pitfalls that were worsened by COVID-19 would have had less of an impact on college students and their parents. These devastating fiscal issues may have even been avoided completely.
The tabled house bill would have also increased the size of federal Pell Grants, which assist low-income families in paying supplemental college costs, according to The New York Times.
By rejecting these reasonable regulations, Trump has proven to the American people that he only cares about the financial status of college students when it suits him.
On Aug. 8, 2020, Trump signed an executive order to extend the moratorium established by the Sept. 30 executive order. The original order directed Secretary of the Department of Education Betsy DeVos to “let most student loan borrowers temporarily suspend monthly payments on the grounds of economic hardship,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
But the temporary suspension of these payments is not enough. According to CNBC research, the cost of college has increased by more than 25% in the past 10 years, making the problem much bigger than that which could be fixed with temporary payment suspensions.
“There is a tremendous disconnect between the rising costs of education and the flattening of wages, which is only making it harder for graduates to make ends meet while paying back staggering amounts of student loans,” Forbes’ Senior Personal Finance Contributor Camilo Maldonado said.
This growing gap between the price of college and wages made by students once they graduate will only be expedited following the tremendous national economic losses caused by COVID-19.
The HEA was put in place to curve these damages. But instead of focusing on making higher education more affordable in response to economic inequities, Trump has used his time in office to push his own self-serving agenda.
Following his drastic proposed cuts to the HEA on Feb. 29, Trump announced that he planned to sign an executive order that promoted free speech on college campuses in response to the assault of Hayden Williams at UC Berkeley. The order requiring college campuses to protect free speech or risk losing their federal funding was signed on March 21, 2019.
“Trump made the announcement at the Conservative Political Action Conference after he brought up to the stage Hayden Williams, the conservative activist attacked last month at University of California-Berkeley. Conservatives have accused some colleges of trying to suppress anti-liberal viewpoints,” Fox News reported.
While all physical assaults should certainly be condemned, Trump used the attack on Williams as a way to disguise hate speech as free speech on college campuses.
“The silencing of conservatives on college campuses is a serious problem that has spread across our nation,” Fox News’ Jerry Falwell said.
By fostering the narrative that conservatives are under attack on college campuses, Trump has promoted the radical divide between the right and left, leaving an irreversible strain on colleges and universities that surpasses the financial constraints he has failed to mitigate.
Not only are college students facing severe economic damages, they are also experiencing a suppression of their autonomy. Colleges and universities exist to expose young people to opinions that may be different from their own. Trump could have used this sentiment to condemn hate speech as well as protect free speech. Instead, he victimized conservatives and pitted more students against each other — damaging the nation’s perception of the college experience.
“The president’s claim that the campus free-speech order was needed to defend ‘American values that have been under siege’ ignored two essential facts. First, universities are, today, more hospitable venues for open debate than the nation as a whole. Second, not only have fierce arguments over where to draw the line on acceptable speech been a familiar occurrence in the United States for the past century, but such dialogue has also been indispensable to building a society that embraces the First Amendment,” The Atlantic’s Lee Bollinger said.
In the last four years, Trump has sent the nation’s college students into a financial grave and a contentious tailspin surrounding free speech. Trump’s slashing of the HEA may demonstrate his belief that it is not the responsibility of the U.S. government to provide higher education for all. Trump seems to think that college should only be attended by those who share the same political beliefs as him, creating a larger divide between deserving low-income students and the small percentage of those who can afford the burdensome cost of tuition.
Featured Photo caption: College students protest the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.