From the President: The Impact of Trump's Budget on Higher Education

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

In the years I have been writing the president’s column, I haven’t felt compelled until now to write about the same topic in two consecutive issues. My last column was written shortly after November 8 and focused on the significance of Donald Trump’s election as the forty-fifth president of the United States. There, I predicted that Trump’s presidency would be “neoliberalism on steroids.” In this column, I focus on how that neoliberalism, as reflected in Trump’s March budget proposal, might affect higher education.

Although Trump’s initial budget barely mentions higher education, the cuts that he is proposing would be devastating. They would have an impact on several different areas.

First, his budget would cut roughly $5 billion from programs that serve low-income students and students of color. Some of these cuts would come in the form of reductions in Pell Grants, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) Program, and the Federal Work-Study Program. More than 81 percent of students receiving SEOG funds come from families earning less than $30,000 per year; another 16 percent come from families with incomes between $30,000 and $60,000. More of these cuts would target TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) funding. TRIO provides support for low-income and first-generation students who need tutoring or mentoring. GEAR UP provides college-prep opportunities to low-income students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Still more cuts would apply to Title III and V funds that support historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions.

The president’s budget also calls for massive cuts at the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy. A wide spectrum of scientific and engineering research would be brought to a halt. Research on climate change, for example, was already underfunded, but the president, believing that climate change is a hoax—something he likely heard on Fox News—is attempting to eliminate funding for such research altogether.

Trump brings bad news to health and medicine, too. He is proposing major cuts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Overwhelmingly, NIH funding goes to support research at institutions of higher education. NIH grants support the work of over 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in all fifty states.

Trump’s cuts in the State Department budget would affect exchange programs and funding for foreign language and area studies programs. There would be no funding for the US Institute of Peace or for the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the scholarly work they support.

The budget would also do away with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, both of which have provided many grants to colleges and universities. In addition, Trump proposes eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports National Public Radio stations, including many owned and operated by colleges and universities.

Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and his executive orders on immigration and refugees are already harming higher education. In fact, Inside Higher Ed reports that four in ten colleges are seeing declines in applications from international students.

Typically, international students pay full tuition, so fewer international students means a big drop in revenues. Combined with Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts—and already diminished state support for public colleges and universities—this drop in revenue could cause massive budget shortfalls for institutions of higher education. So it should come as no surprise that Moody’s Investors Service recently concluded that the financial outlook for higher education in general is negative.

The defeat of Trumpcare in March teaches us again that massive pressure on federal officials—notably, members of Congress—can have substantial results. Conference and chapter leaders should focus on mobilizing members to act together in opposition to Trump’s budgetary proposals. Leaders can provide information to members about the cuts, as well as talking points they can use with students, colleagues, family, and neighbors. They should likewise offer their members talking points and contact information for congressional representatives and editorial boards of local newspapers.

Finally, remember that we in higher education have allies. Labor unions and other organizations fighting for social and economic justice will also oppose Trump’s budgetary proposals, and we should work with them in our common struggle.