Trump Proposes Free Online National University

The former president's Robin Hood approach to democratizing higher education might play well in the polls but seems too nebulous to take seriously – for now.
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Published on November 9, 2023
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  • Former President Donald Trump recently proposed the establishment of the American Academy, a free online university offering instruction in all disciplines.
  • Funding for the academy would come from wealthy private universities whose endowments would be further taxed.
  • Short on details, Trump's proposal leaves many questions unanswered.
  • The announcement may be more of a political maneuver than an actual plan.

Former President Donald Trump wants to establish a national online university offering free programs in all academic disciplines — and he expects wealthy private universities to pay for it.

Exactly how would Trump's "American Academy" work? Is this a plausible idea with any chance of coming to fruition, or is it, as one observer suggested, simply a boondoggle?

Trump's Vision for the American Academy

Gearing up for another run at the White House, Trump recently released a campaign video on YouTube presenting his idea for a new national online university, the American Academy.

Delivered in the context of the campus protests and antisemitic attacks stemming from the Israel-Hamas war, Trump's address promised to "offer something dramatically different" than the education Harvard and "other once-respected universities" are providing.

"We spend more money on higher education than any other country, and yet they're turning our students into communists and terrorists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions," Trump said. "We can't let this happen."

Trump vowed the academy would be free of "wokeness" and "jihadism."

"None of that's gonna be allowed," he said.

Devoid of a political agenda, the academy would "gather an entire universe of the highest quality educational content covering the full spectrum of human knowledge and skills" and deliver a "truly top-tier education option for the people" — all at no cost.

The academy represents a "revolution in higher education" that Trump claims won't add a "single dime" to the federal debt.

And just who pays for this? Wealthy private universities such as Trump's alma mater, of course, institutions sitting on massive endowments ripe for the taxing.

To fund the academy, the government will use the "billions and billions of dollars" it will collect by "taxing, fining, and suing excessively large private university endowments."

The academy would be especially beneficial to adults with some college but no degree, offering credits for prior coursework toward the "full and complete equivalent of a bachelor's degree."

Trump's plan for the American Academy is clearly ambitious, but is it feasible?

Unpacking Trump's American Academy Proposal

Announcing a complex idea such as a free, online national university in a video lasting less than three minutes is bound to leave many questions unanswered. Like many campaign promises, this one teems with lofty rhetoric but skimps on specifics.

Let's start with the issue of funding. Under Trump's plan, the federal government would somehow tax or fine private universities with large endowments to generate "billions and billions" of dollars that would underwrite the academy.

Taxing endowments is nothing new for Trump. In 2017, his administration instituted a 1.4% tax on colleges with at least 500 students and more than $500,000 in endowment per student.

How much money does 1.4% translate into? Harvard paid $49.8 million in federal taxes in 2019, and Stanford paid $42.9 million.

According to Politico, last year 58 institutions paid a total of $244 million in taxes under this law. Naturally, figures fluctuate based on endowment returns in a given year.

How taxing wealthy schools might result in "billions and billions of dollars" remains unclear, though it implies even more draconian measures must be implemented.

Trump also said funds collected would be used to endow the new academy. Presumably, the government (and perhaps private investors?) would have to kick in additional funding to complement the funds generated from the endowment.

Here's why. Using a typical spending rate of 5%, a $100 million endowment would generate $5 million in usable funds annually. And that's after one year, so any immediate start-up costs would have to be funded from another source.

A $1 billion endowment would, of course, generate $50 million per year. That seems like a good amount of money for a university, but consider that Harvard's annual operating budget is $5.4 billion. An endowment large enough to produce a figure like that is unfathomable.

Not that the American Academy would have Harvard's expenses. Online universities don't have the physical infrastructure of "real" campuses to support. But creating a digital infrastructure wouldn't be cheap, nor would be the faculty required to deliver programs across a wide range of subjects or the staff required to administer the institution.

Unless Trump plans on absolutely eviscerating university endowments, additional money would have to come from somewhere else. Running the academy would likely require using the "billions" of dollars extracted from universities as annual operating funds, not just endowed funds.

And if the federal government is comfortable decimating universities responsible for many of the scientific, medical, and technological innovations the world benefits from, then so be it.

Additionally, Trump failed to mention who might run this academy, and how. Would it fall under the aegis of the federal government, much like the nation's military academies? How would it be governed? To whom would it be accountable?

And who would constitute the faculty? Would the academy borrow professors from existing universities to teach part time, or would it hire its own? Either way, there would have to be plenty of them to cover the "full spectrum of human knowledge and skills."

Then there's the matter of the credential. Trump used the phrase "full and complete equivalent of a bachelor's degree." Does that mean the academy won't offer a degree per se but some other credential? What would be its value in the workforce? Would any measure of stackability be embraced by traditional institutions?

If the American Academy did materialize, it could have serious implications for massive online universities such as Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, and Arizona State, along with third-party providers like Coursera and 2U, undercutting their business models with free higher education presumably recognized as a legitimate alternative.

Political Expediency of the Announcement

As Trump gears up for another presidential run, some critics claim this announcement smacks of political expediency and perhaps serves more as an appeal to the right flank than a bona fide plan with any hope of coming to fruition.

"It's capitalizing on public frustration about higher education, and I think the reason it's being announced now is the fights about the Israel-Hamas war on college campuses," Robert Kelchen, professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told Inside Higher Ed.

"I think it suggests frustration with the political direction of higher education. Trump thinks he can score political points by basically poking higher education and saying that they're too liberal and woke and that his university won't be like that."

Promising a free credential to 40 million Americans who started college but never finished isn't a terrible way to sway some voters.

For it to become reality, Trump's academy would have to pass muster with Congress, which may or may not prove difficult given the makeup of the House and Senate following next year's elections. The issue of free college remains a divisive political topic even though the majority of Americans support the idea.

Political opponents might point to Trump's track record with "higher education," namely his ill-fated Trump University, which debuted in 2005 and crashed spectacularly in 2018 with a $25 million settlement paid to disgruntled graduates claiming they were swindled and duped.

At the same time, supporters could call Trump the second coming of George Washington, who proposed "the establishment of a University; where the Youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of Erudition in the Arts, Sciences & Belle Letters" — the forerunner to Trump's American Academy that, perhaps much like Trump's new venture might turn out, never got off the ground.

All told, it's not an entirely bad idea. Democratizing higher education and offering free access to learning for millions of Americans is certainly a noble cause. The devil here is in the details, not least of which is the matter of funding and the extent to which Congress is willing to play Robin Hood with the nation's leading universities.

If Trump regains the White House, we'll see just how serious he is about the American Academy.