The Unexpected Strategy Trump is Using to Redefine American Education

The Unexpected Strategy Trump is Using to Redefine American Education

From deploying the military to crush protests 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. However, 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. 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 the commission’s membership has “been consistent for decades and decades and decades. It was the same membership when President Trump was in office.”

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.

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