Politics / StudentNation / July 5, 2024

Donald Trump’s Secret Weapon to Dismantle American Education

The former president’s plans for a second term could reshape American education and academic freedom as we know it.

Owen Dahlkamp
Donald Trump Campaign Event

Donald Trump speaks to guests during a rally at Clinton Middle School in Iowa.


(Scott Olson / Getty)

From deploying the military to crush protest to bending the limits of the president’s constitutional authority, Donald Trump’s plans for a potential second term could completely reconstruct the power of the federal government. But one little-discussed proposal would leverage an obscure bureaucratic process to transform education and academic freedom in this country.

A series of campaign statements, dubbed “Agenda47,” lays out the former president’s vision for 2025 and beyond—one that fights for conservative values in the culture wars permeating American education, while leaving education decisions to states and students’ families.

Trump plans to shutter the Department of Education, restore prayer in schools, create an American Academy that awards low-cost degrees to students paid for by levying financial penalties against institutions that do not yield to his ideological standards, revitalize school choice, limit discussion of LGBTQ+ content in classrooms, and much more. These proposals are almost identical to Project 2025: a 920-page playbook chock-full of right-wing policy priorities for the next Trump administration. The Heritage Foundation, the organization that authored Project 2025, declined to make any of its scholars available for comment.

Trump and his conservative allies have zeroed in on one specific regulatory power they hope to wield to instill “American values” in higher education: accreditation. While typically viewed as a monotonous and routine requirement, Trump plans to weaponize the accreditation process to “reclaim our once great educational institutions from the radical left” and instill conservative values in these independent institutions. If colleges do not adopt Trump’s right-wing values, they will be in jeopardy of losing federal funding.

Created as a consumer protection of sorts, the higher-education accreditation system is composed of private companies that review institutions’ financial viability, student learning outcomes, and other factors to ensure that students are receiving the education for which they are paying. These reviews are staunchly apolitical and tailored to the given school’s mission, according to several accreditation experts who spoke to The Nation. In contrast, Trump has painted a narrative of “radical left accreditors that have allowed our colleges to become dominated by Marxist maniacs and lunatics”—a characterization rejected by accreditors nationwide.

Lawrence Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) which accredits over 200 schools, rejected this notion by highlighting the diversity of schools NECHE accredits, including religious universities, secular institutions, military academies, and private universities. This variation lends itself to NECHE’s apolitical nature, Schall said, adding that commission’s membership has “been consistent for decades and decades and decades. It was the same membership when President Trump was in office.”

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In an e-mail to The Nation, Belle Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), said that Trump’s characterization does not “take into account the long and distinguished history of accreditation in American higher education” that has safeguarded “quality assurance among institutions in accordance with their respective and distinctive missions.”

The accreditation process is designed to be nonpartisan, with an emphasis on evaluating schools in relation to their educational mission; whether that be a religious one, secular one, STEM-oriented one, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all process. Seeking to radically remake the status quo, Trump and his allies have plans to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) administrators, implement entrance and exit exams for students, impose standards on “American tradition and Western civilization,” and other highly controversial measures.

One expert who has supported the effort to eliminate DEI in colleges and universities, Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that if eliminating DEI “means eliminating every manner of bureaucrat whose mission is tied to the conceit that universities are hotbeds of discrimination against which ‘minoritized’ groups need protection, I am all for such an effort.” She said that such policies create a “mismatch” in which “students who have been admitted with drastically lower academic qualifications end up at the bottom of their class.”

Instilling American values in colleges, Mac Donald said, “is no more objectionable than requiring acknowledgement of alleged systemic racism,” adding that in an ideal world, the political alignment of colleges would be less rigid and left-leaning. “But we are far beyond that point.” She added that higher education should acknowledge the “hypocrisy regarding America’s founding ideals” in the treatment of minorities, while celebrating “the extraordinary achievements of Western civilization,” including advancements in the physical sciences and arts.

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Many experts in higher education have begun to sound the alarm that such actions may infringe on academic freedom and institutional autonomy—two cornerstones of American higher education. “I’ve been a member of probably 15 or 20 accreditation teams over the years,” said Paul Gaston, a former professor at Kent State and expert in accreditation. “I’ve never sensed that any member of those teams was there out of some kind of self-interest or ideological priority.”

“There’s not this brain trust at the top that’s making policy,” Gaston said. “The policies tend to be made by the boards of these commissions,” most of whom work at different types of higher-education institutions themselves.

“Usually, the accrediting agencies are in the background,” said Luther Spoehr, a former professor at Brown University and expert in academic freedom. This lends itself to conspiracies, Spoehr said, as it “feeds into the instinct of a lot of people who follow Trump that they are finding a conspiracy” where there isn’t one. He called Agenda47 “scary.”

With Trump singling out left-wing content at these universities and promising to impose standards of “American values,” this political intervention in higher education echoes the McCarthy era, when academics were called to Capitol Hill for questioning by lawmakers about their suspected affiliation with the Communist Party. But the proceedings, according to historian Ellen Schrecker, “were people being targeted for their external political activities. They were never questioned about their teaching or research.” Schrecker dubbed Trump’s desires as McCarthyism 2.0: a blueprint that would empower politicians to “reach into the content of what people are teaching,” threatening academic freedom. The Trump campaign did not respond to this claim when asked by The Nation.

Over the past century, the federal government has continued to exert and expand its support and influence over institutions of higher education. Congress controls 43 percent of public funding for colleges and universities through federal appropriations, and Pell Grants and funding from the GI Bill can only be used at accredited institutions. These requirements could be leveraged by a new Trump administration to force universities to abide by his ideological wishes.

“The real nightmare scenario is Trump is elected and the Republicans control both the House and the Senate,” Spoehr said. “Then what happens to things like federal funding for Pell Grants? What conditions would have to be met by different institutions in order for them to continue educating?”

“What Trump wants to do is to turn these schools into institutions that will indoctrinate their students with a sort of right-wing populism,” Schrecker said. “That, of course, is going to destroy American higher education.”

Trump’s first term already brought major changes to American education. Through his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, Trump expanded federal support for religious schools and organizations, invested in school choice programs, threatened gender-accommodation policies and repeatedly requested funding cuts for public education.

John Connelly, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, with expertise in comparative education, said he was “a little more optimistic” that guardrails would be in place to stop or temper Trump’s plans. “If you had a really gifted far-right figure who was figuring out how to manipulate the system, he would probably proceed in a more careful manner to gain allies within higher education,” Connelly said. “Trump is too ignorant to know what an ally would look like within higher education.”

But in predicting what may happen if Trump returns to the White House, there is a test case that can be referenced: conservatives’ intervention in Florida’s public universities.

In 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis approved a bill requiring institutions in Florida to change accreditors each cycle. With SACSCOC credentialing 75 colleges in Florida, many institutions are now scrambling to switch their accrediting agencies to comply with the law. North Carolina also passed a similar law in 2023, a state where SACSCOC credentials 111 colleges.

The attacks on SACSCOC are rooted in what some state officials see as partisan behavior by the accrediting agency. One instance is consistently pointed to by Florida politicians; the University of Florida was investigated by SACSCOC for not permitting three of its professors to testify against the state’s voting restrictions. But Wheelan, the president of SASCSOC, stood by her agency saying that “all we’ve done is follow our policy,” according to Inside Higher Education.

“SACSCOC has often found itself in the target zone of consternation,” Wheelan said to The Nation. “Today, the distinction appears to be that leaders are not talking with those of us who do this work to help offer solutions.”

Despite education’s prevalence in the political discussion, the issue of education is not a top priority for voters heading to the polls this November; less than 1 percent of registered voters said it was their top issue in a May 2024 New York Times/Siena College poll. Despite its lack of saliency, the party that controls the White House will have sweeping powers to shape American education for decades.

“By increasing access to school choice, empowering parents to have a voice in their child’s education, and supporting good teachers, President Trump will improve academic excellence for all students,” Trump’s National Press Secretary Karoline Leavitt said in a statement to The Nation. “President Trump believes students should be taught reading, writing and math in the classroom—not gender, sex and race like the Biden administration is pushing on our public school system.”

When asked for specific instances of the Biden administration’s push for increased teachings of gender, sex, and race in classrooms, the campaign did not respond.

In response, James Singer, a spokesperson for the Biden-Harris campaign, said, “Trump and his extremist allies are planning a destruction of our education system that forces their world view down the throats of America’s students,” adding that “book bans, witch hunts, threats, and empowering ideologues is not an education agenda—it’s the end of education all together.”

Singer said that Biden is focused on “increasing teacher pay and making higher and secondary education more affordable and attainable” and would continue to work toward those goals in a second term.

Of the accrediting experts The Nation spoke to, none could name an institution that has lost accreditation for not adhering to a particular ideology or because of the content they teach. The heads of NECHE and SACSCOC both said that they do not regulate the content of classes at any given institution, so long as it aligns with the institution’s mission. If Trump were to do so to impose the traditional American values he’s promised in higher education, according to Spoehr, “it would be unprecedented.”

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Owen Dahlkamp

Owen Dahlkamp is a 2024 Puffin student writing fellow for The Nation. He is a journalist at Brown University, where he is pursuing a degree in political science and cognitive neuroscience.

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