Acton Institute Powerblog

Explainer: President Trump’s executive order on campus speech, student loans

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What just happened?

Earlier this month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Trump announced he would sign an executive order to promote free speech on college campuses. The president is set to sign to sign that executive order today, which he has vowed will require colleges to “support free speech” or face “very costly” penalties.

What does this executive order do?

The title of the executive order is “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges And Universities” with the purpose being to “enhance the quality of postsecondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable.”

Despite the president’s rhetoric, the new order won’t have much effect on campus speech since it simply restates that colleges and universities must comply with existing laws regarding free inquiry.

The order directs federal agencies to “take appropriate steps” to ensure that colleges receiving federal research funds “promote free inquiry.” But public colleges are already legally bound by the First Amendment. And private colleges will only be required to “comply with their stated institutional policies regarding free inquiry,” an unnamed senior administration official told POLITICO.

The order also directs the Education Department to add program-level outcomes data to the federal government’s “College Scorecard” and produce a report examining “policy options” for the idea of risk sharing on student-loan debt.

What policies does this executive order change?

The order requires the Departments of Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law” to ensure institutions that receive federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable federal laws, regulations, and policies.

Under the order, federal research or education grants include all funding provided by a covered agency directly to an institution but do not include funding associated with federal student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends.

Additionally, the order requires the Department of Education to make available, by January 1, 2020, through the Office of Federal Student Aid, a secure and confidential website and mobile application that informs federal student loan borrowers of how much they owe, how much their monthly payment will be when they enter repayment, available repayment options, how long each repayment option will take, and how to enroll in the repayment option that best serves their needs.

The order also requires the agency to expand and update annually the College Scorecard, or any successor, with program-level data on student loans for each certificate, degree, graduate, and professional program, for former students who received federal student aid. 

What is an executive order?

An executive order is an official document, signed by the president, used to manage the Federal Government.

Are executive orders legally binding?

Yes, assuming they are limited to the scope of the executive action allowed by a president, an executive order has the power of federal law. While a president cannot directly create a new law or sign an executive order that violates existing law, he or she can use an executive order to specify how laws will be carried out or direct how a federal agency will carry out a task.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).