Universities keep watchful eye on Washington as Trump lays out higher ed reform proposals

Leaders at area universities keep a watchful eye on conversations in Washington, D.C., that could affect their respective students and staff. Peter Johnson, chief liaison officer at the University of North Dakota, said UND has a number of staff m...

President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House
President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Jan. 4, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

Leaders at area universities keep a watchful eye on conversations in Washington, D.C., that could affect their respective students and staff.

Peter Johnson, chief liaison officer at the University of North Dakota, said UND has a number of staff members who watch for various higher education priorities and policies coming out of Washington, D.C.

For example, Cara Halgren, vice president of student affairs and diversity, follows topics related to students. John Mihelich, interim vice president for research, looks at priorities related to research, Johnson said.

“All those individuals have relationships with national entities who also help look at what’s coming out of Washington,” he said. “We’re watchful.”

Johnson said the university follows those national conversations as a way to prepare for any potential changes coming down the line.


“Depending on what’s enacted, we respond appropriately,” he said.

While not all policy matters have a great impact on a school like the University of Minnesota-Crookston, Vice Chancellor John Hoffman said he still closely monitors policy matters at the state and federal levels.

President Donald Trump laid out a number of proposals to reform the higher education system last month, including a proposal to cap the amount of parent loans that can be taken out to fund a student’s education.

“Some of the changes that come along could have an effect on us but in this particular case I don’t see it having a big effect on the University of Minnesota-Crookston. But we try to attend to (those policy issues) carefully,” Hoffman said.

To address increasing debt, the Trump administration proposes establishing limits on federal student loans, as well as improved guidance to students about their likely ability to fulfill repayment obligations.

“The Trump administration is committed to reforming higher education through legislation and regulatory reforms that provide more Americans access to a quality education, hold institutions accountable and help students and families make informed decisions regarding their educational options,” the White House said in a press release outlining various reforms.

The proposal asks Congress to institute Parent and Grad PLUS loan limits. However, it does not have a set amount at this time.

Mike Griffin, who provides leadership for enrollment management at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, noted there already are caps on the amount of federal loans students can take out, which is $57,500. About half of that amount can come from subsidized aid for lower-income students and the rest would come through regular student loans.


Hoffman said the narrative surrounding parent loans is, because there is no limit on them, colleges and universities charge higher tuition levels, thus making college more expensive for students. If there is a cap on the amount of loans parents can take out, Hoffman said the thinking is universities would be forced to lower their tuition.

However, he said those high levels of tuition don’t affect schools like UMC because the school is already very affordable. Tuition at Crookston is $10,282 a year; over a four-year timetable that is significantly below even the student limit for federal borrowing.

“It wouldn’t have an effect on us,” he said. “... We feel we have a responsibility that students can manage any loans that they take out after they graduate from the university.”

Tuition at UND is also well below the borrowing limit for students at $8,695 a year for North Dakota residents.

Hoffman said he is skeptical the proposal would be successful at lowering tuition.

Columbia University in New York has the highest tuition in the nation at around $60,000 a year. However, many students at the university receive scholarship money that reduces the cost.

“As a higher ed scholar, I’m somewhat skeptical that this would actually lead to a reduction in the amount of tuition that’s charged by institutions,” he said. “I don’t see this as putting pressure on colleges and universities to lower their tuition.”

Higher ed budget In addition to proposed changes to the Higher Education Act, Trump also released a higher education budget last month that would cut $7.1 billion in funding at the U.S. Department of Education.


The budget proposal asks Congress to eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness and subsidized student loans, Inside Higher Ed reported. The budget also calls for changes to the income-driven repayment programs for student borrowers, the publication reported.

While the budget calls for the end of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, the president’s proposal would provide forgiveness to all undergraduate borrowers after 15 years, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Janelle Kilgore, interim vice provost SEM for enrollment management at UND, said UND has more than 3,500 lower income undergraduate students per year who receive a Federal Direct Subsidized Loan. She said removing the subsidized loan program would increase the cost of a college education since most students do not make their interest payments while in school.

"The federal grant and subsidized loan program were established to help create access to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have the means and/or financial resources to attend post-secondary education," she said. "In my opinion, removing these programs would hinder low and middle income students’ educational opportunities to advance their socio-economic status."

Interest doesn’t accrue on subsidized loans while the borrower is in school or in economic hardship.

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