The tumultuous early weeks of the Trump administration have produced plenty of headlines and controversy, but almost nothing on higher education. The nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has only recently been confirmed, and given her background in K-12, higher education was not a major theme of her Senate hearing. The announcement of a task force to reform higher ed, to be led by Liberty University President, Jerry Falwell, Jr., gave little detail about its policy priorities or objectives but remains the young administration’s only substantive action on higher ed to date.
Why the Administration Matters
Ultimately, public policy is just one of many factors shaping the edtech environment; and, regardless of policy direction, any administration should provide consistency and stability for the institutions and investors that purchase our products and services.
However, the few signals from the new administration have yet to allay any fears about instability, causing concern about revenue and institutional mission. Action to curtail immigration risks the ability of colleges and universities to recruit students from abroad, engage in global research communities and attract faculty talent, endangering important revenue sources and institutional reputations.
Also, the president’s tweet threatening UC Berkeley’s financial aid funding over a controversial speaker on campus may prove to be an isolated incident, but it reinforces concerns among institutions that this administration will intervene unexpectedly and directly. Such uncertainty among edtech’s customer base will have considerable and direct effects on the sector.
Though it’s too early to predict what impact the administration’s higher ed policies will have on the education technology sector, last year’s electoral campaign and executive actions in the early weeks of the administration may offer some insight into education priorities, pointing attention—and, potentially, funding—toward workforce development and institutional accountability. Neither area is a major departure from longstanding trends in higher education, but the administration’s emphasis will create opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors alike.
(Next page: Workforce initiatives and accountability in the Trump Era)
Educating America’s Workforce
Throughout the campaign, then-candidate Trump made restoring manufacturing jobs a centerpiece of his platform. Early executive orders and announcements have reiterated this theme, suggesting that it will remain a focus of his administration.
The president typically casts his jobs message as a warning to U.S. manufacturers who outsource supply lines and production facilities to foreign countries. He has also repeatedly spoken of restricting the flow of immigrants who might compete with American workers.
He has not, however, emphasized automation or the increasing skill requirements for workers in growth sectors such as technology, advanced manufacturing and healthcare. Nonetheless, these latter trends are greater contributors to the stagnation that has dimmed the career prospects for many American workers and must be key considerations for any effective job creation plan.
Regardless of the causes, education will be essential to the solution. Upskilling and retraining programs create a virtuous cycle, encouraging corporate and government investments in new factories by bolstering the preparation and potential of local workforces.
Edtech that supports flexible delivery models and decreases time (and cost) to marketable credentials—such as CBE, micro-credentialing and experiential learning platforms—will provide critical infrastructure to retrain and strengthen the U.S. workforce. Tools that align educational opportunities with employer demand for specific skills and expertise will continue to gain attention and investment dollars for their systems that provide better data to help students and coaches personalize learning experiences and pathways to credentials.
In recent years, employers, legislators and the public have intensified their questioning about the value of, and return on, the costly investment in higher education. President Trump has emphatically echoed those concerns, painting the picture of an educational system that wastes money, burdens students with debt and does not prepare them for their careers.
During the campaign, in announcing a college affordability plan, he railed against the cost of college, and suggested universities use their endowment funds to tackle rising tuition:
“[S]tudents are choking on those loans. They can’t pay them back. Before they start, they’re in trouble. [… But] these universities use [endowment] money to pay their administrators, to put donors’ names on their buildings, or just store the money, keep it and invest it. … they should be using the money on students, for tuition, for student life and for student housing.
In his inaugural address, his rhetoric was even more pointed, decrying an “education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
Given the President’s early executive actions to reduce regulation across the economy, it seems unlikely that this perception of a mismanaged and ineffective higher education system will result in further federal rulemaking and oversight.
It does, however, open the door for the administration to pressure higher education institutions on student success and tuition costs. Even without additional regulations, the administration can—as the Obama administration did in applying pressure to for-profit institutions—use financial aid and its influence with accreditors to demand accountability on specific outcomes.
For edtech, this presents opportunities for tools that allow higher education providers to demonstrate their value more clearly and directly. Technologies providing better ways to collect and use more comprehensive learning data, linking skills and content to employment and provisioning support services to students more quickly and effectively will all be in demand. The market will continue to grow for tools that allow for a richer understanding of student progress and learning, such as transcripting services that track granular data aligned with marketable professional skills, and platforms that capture peer-to-peer, experiential and project based learning in greater depth. Furthermore, such data-dependent technologies can play a role in helping institutions control costs by informing and directing spending choices.
The More Things Change
Ultimately, the Trump administration could do much to spur innovation in higher ed, generating opportunity and investment across edtech. If the administration backs its rhetoric on job creation with action to bring employers and educators together and help them engage more constructively, edtech will have an important role to play.
But it seems unlikely there will be radical departures or new directions in education policy. In fact, the administration might find its best opportunities to advance its priorities by supporting and extending earlier policy initiatives, such as last year’s Education Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP), that encourage industry-education collaboration and new approaches to institutional accreditation, objectives very much in line with its push to limit governmental regulation, spur innovation and accelerate economic growth.