New Executive Order Regarding Free Speech and Consumer Awareness

March 20, 2019

By: Sarah A. Luke

Today, President Trump will sign a new Executive Order (EO): Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities. The EO focuses on two areas: free speech and consumer awareness.

Free Speech

With respect to free speech, the EO requires heads of federal agencies to take “appropriate steps” with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that institutions receiving Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry.  Institutions of higher learning have long recognized the importance of free expression, open discourse, and intellectual inquiry. Academic freedom is central to the culture of the academy. Many institutions are subject to constitutional protections of speech and inquiry, and those that are not have generally adopted internal policies safeguarding these core values. It is therefore unclear what, if any, affect this provision will have in its attempt to enforce values that institutions already treasure. 

Consumer Awareness

The new requirements promoting consumer awareness and institutional accountability are more tangible. The EO requires the Department of Education to develop a website and mobile app that will allow federal student loan borrowers easy access to their loan balances and information about repayment options.  The Department must also develop policy options that would ensure that academic institutions share some of the risk of participation in federal loan programs and reform the collections process for federal loans in default. 

It also requires expansion of the college scorecard to include the following program level data for every degree, certificate, graduate and professional program for former students who received financial aid:

  • Estimated median earnings
  • Median Stafford loan debt
  • Median Graduate PLUS loan debt
  • Median Parent PLUS loan debt
  • Student loan and default rate and repayment rate

The scorecard must also include institution-level data for:

  • Student loan default rate and repayment rate
  • Graduate PLUS default rate and repayment rate
  • Parent PLUS default rate and repayment rate

Within one year of the EO, the Department of Education must publish research showing how states and institutions have successfully facilitated transfer of credits and degree completion for transfer students, how they have increased access to dual enrollment programs, and how they have otherwise fostered student success.  

What Should Your Institution Do?

Here are three steps your institution can take to make sure you are ready for this EO’s implementation:

  1. Familiarize yourself with institutional policies and guidelines governing freedom of inquiry, speech, and expression on campus. These could include policies on academic freedom, research, the role of faculty, facilities use, student government, student organizations, and campus events. Make sure your policies are up to date and have been recently reviewed by counsel.
     
  2. Conduct a self-audit of programs that cater to transfer students. Make sure you are able to easily highlight these areas of strength within your institution, and be prepared with additional ideas to build on those strengths.
     
  3. Gather and prepare supplemental information to contextualize data contained in the updated college scorecard. Nothing in the EO prohibits an institution from providing more information to consumers, so if you think your scorecard does not accurately represent student success on your campus, be prepared to offer that perspective through your institution’s media relations department, recruitment efforts, and alumni groups.