Trump propone universidad gratuita
Noviembre 27, 2023

A Free, Online National University Is Trump’s Latest Higher-Ed Idea. Here’s What Experts Think.

Donald J. Trump visited Liberty U. as a presidential contender in January 2016. He’ll return in May to give the commencement address.
STEVE HELBER, AP IMAGES
Donald J. Trump speaks at Liberty U. in 2016.

Former President Donald J. Trump is adding his voice to the many who are calling for “free college,” with a few twists, of course.

In a campaign video on Wednesday, Trump proposed creating the “American Academy,” which would offer “a truly world-class education to every American,” without “adding a single dime to the national debt.”

To be sure, this is not the kind of “free college” proposal that was floated by both President Obama and President Biden — essentially, two years of tuition-free community college. Instead, Trump’s “academy” would be entirely online, he said, and offer “an entire universe of the highest-quality educational content covering the full spectrum of human knowledge and skills.”

“Whether you want lectures, or ancient histories, or an introduction to financial accounting, or training in a skilled trade,” Trump said, “the goal will be to deliver it and get it done properly using study groups, mentors, industry partnerships, and the latest breakthrough in computing.”

The idea has gotten some attention because Trump is currently the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But even if he is elected, the proposal is unlikely to make it far in Congress, where partisan gridlock has prevented any updates to the federal Higher Education Act for more than a decade, said James S. Murphy, deputy director of higher-education policy at Education Reform Now, a nonpartisan think tank that advocates for public education.

“I suspect there would be as much opposition from some on the right who think the federal government should have little or no role in education as from the left,” Murphy wrote in an email.

The problem isn’t that the federal government couldn’t create such an entity, said Jonathan Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education, an advocacy group that represents some 1,700 colleges across all sectors of higher education. The government runs military academies, for example, and provides a wide range of education and career training through several agencies, he said.

But the cost and scope of such an endeavor would probably not be popular with Republicans who have traditionally sought to limit the federal role in education, said Fansmith. “Even people who may share his views about higher education would probably blanch at the financial commitment,” Fansmith said.

Trump said his online college would be paid for with “billions and billions of dollars that we will collect by taxing, fining, and suing excessively large private-university endowments.” Under the Trump administration, Congress passed a budget bill that placed a 1.4-percent tax on the investment earnings of endowments at colleges with more than 500 students and $500,000 in endowment per student.

That tax brought in nearly $250 million last year, according to IRS figures cited by Politico. But that’s just a small fraction of the budget of a typical state flagship university, which may run into the billions, Fansmith said; such institutions serve far fewer students than might enroll in an institution that serves the entire country.

Boondoggle?

An offer of free college, entirely run and paid for by the federal government, may come as a bit of a surprise from a politician who has drawn a sharp distinctionbetween his supporters and the majority of college-educated voters who in recent elections have cast ballots for Democratic presidential candidates. Trump has also been a proponent of limiting federal involvement in education, for instance by suggesting entirely eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.

The idea of “American Academy” may also be a reminder to both policymakers and voters of the original Trump University, an unaccredited, for-profit company that promised to teach students how to succeed in real estate for a price of up to $35,000 each. Trump eventually paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit by the New York State attorney general that the “university” had misled some 6,000 students.

So, why does the former president think it would be a good idea? One aim, Trump said this week, is to counter what he described as “wokeism” on college campuses — the widespread conservative idea that faculty members are indoctrinating students in progressive idealism.

In announcing his online college, Trump also cited demonstrations over the conflict in Israel and Gaza as evidence that colleges are leading students down a misguided path of progressivism.

“We spend more money on higher education than any other country,” Trump said, “and yet they’re turning our students into Communists and terrorists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions.”

We worry that such a program would become a wasteful and unkillable money pit.

Eliminating left-leaning influences in higher education has been a common theme among Trump’s education proposals, including his recent idea to eliminate the current accreditation system and create new accreditors that would prohibit any institutional support for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is trailing far behind Trump in polling for the GOP nomination, has suggested a similar measure.

Despite the practical hurdles, there are seeds of good ideas in Trump’s proposal, Fansmith said, such as considering whether the federal Education Department could play a bigger role in setting standards for colleges to accept credits for courses students have completed without earning a degree.

Murphy said Congress could consider expanding the endowment tax to include more colleges and use it as a way to incentivize elite institutions to enroll a greater number of low- and middle-income students.

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“The endowment tax was created as a middle finger to elite universities and nothing more,” Murphy said. “We should use it to motivate good behavior, and the funds collected through it should be used to support postsecondary success grants, not a national online university.”

The biggest challenge for Trump’s plans, however, is likely to be opposition from other conservative and libertarian groups.

Graham Hillard, editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, wrote in an email that his organization does not support Trump’s idea. The Martin Center is an advocate for higher-ed reforms that often align with right-leaning and libertarian critiques of higher education.

“We worry that such a program would become a wasteful and unkillable money pit, competing with established schools poorly, attracting few students, and generating terrible outcomes,” Hillard said.

“We support competition in the higher-ed sector,” he added, “but this proposal sounds like a boondoggle.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2023, issue.
We welcome your thoughts and questions about this article. Please email the editorsor submit a letter for publication.

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