Officials in Massachusetts’s high-powered college and university sector were left scrambling to understand what Donald Trump’s surprise presidency will mean for higher education, as his campaign featured few major policies for one of the region’s largest industries.
“Unfortunately, this election was not marked by much of a substantive debate on higher-education policy,” said Martin Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts system. “I don’t think we have a great sense for what President-elect Trump’s policy will be.”
Meehan said he is concerned that Trump’s posture toward immigration, which would include “extreme vetting” of individuals, will stop the flow of international students to the state’s schools.
Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts University, said he fears that federal funding for academic research could drop off if the tax cuts proposed by Trump lead to lower federal revenues.
“I worry about the federal research support, which really helps our institutions to thrive and to do the kind of work that has not only benefitted the nation and society, but has also served as an economic engine of growth for Massachusetts,” he said.
Trump’s campaign has been vague about higher education; his website references working with Congress, which his party will control, to improve affordability and access.
Emerson College President Lee Pelton said Trump should lay out a specific plan for how he would do so.
“I’m unaware of any specific plans that he has put forward to make college more affordable,” Pelton said.
Trump’s vanquished opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton proposed free tuition at public schools for students at certain income levels and the opportunity to refinance existing student debt.
Adam Minsky, an attorney focusing on student debt in Boston, said borrowers should not expect help on the refinancing front from Washington—Republican lawmakers have so far blocked similar efforts from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
But Trump did propose a form of student debt repayment that would forgive remaining balance balances after 15 years of payments, which Minsky said is “more generous” than existing policies.
Trump has mentioned possibly cutting the Department of Education, which handles student loans.
With their party in power, Republicans in Congress could also revive efforts to eliminate the tax exemption on investment profits at university endowments, said Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. Harvard University’s endowment is more than $35 billion, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology endowment is above $13 billion. Taxing the wealthy Cambridge schools could jive politically with the populist rhetoric that thrust Trump to the presidency, Schneider said.