Colleges Could Lose Billions If They Defy Trump

By Shahien Nasiripour and Lance Lambert
March 2, 2017

If Donald Trump intends to fulfill his election promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania—his alma mater—could stand in his way. Penn is one of more than a dozen colleges from Massachusetts to California that have declared themselves so-called sanctuary campuses, meaning they will not allow federal immigration authorities on campus without a warrant.

That stance has frustrated some Republican lawmakers, who are armed with a powerful tool to force colleges to comply with federal law: money. In Congress and statehouses across the country, legislators are pushing bills that aim to withhold government funding from sanctuary colleges. One hundred of the nation’s top universities could lose as much as 25 percent of their annual revenue if they refuse to help immigration agents after bills such as these become law. For a few state flagships, direct taxpayer funding contributes more than 70 percent of annual revenue.

Flagship Public Universities in Republican-Controlled States Most Dependent on Public Funding

  • Funding:
  • Federal
  • State/Local

Private Universities in Republican-Controlled States Most Dependent on Public Funding*

*Out of the 100 universities analyzed by Bloomberg

Taxpayers heavily subsidize U.S. colleges and universities. Local government funding, state appropriations, federal student loans and grants and federal research dollars directed at least $55 billion to the 100 schools Bloomberg analyzed during the 2013-14 academic and fiscal year, the most recent for which complete data are available. Schools probably benefit even more from government money; those numbers don’t include tax breaks on property and on earnings from large endowments.

“It’s a very simple situation. All they need to do is comply with federal law,” said Jerry Knowles, a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania who has sponsored one of the bills. Knowles has “absolutely no concerns at all” about the potential financial hit his proposal could inflict on Penn and other colleges in his state. His proposal has about 30 co-sponsors, nearly a third of the supporters he’d need for his bill to pass Pennsylvania’s lower chamber.

Half of the 100 schools are private, such as Penn, and they collectively received nearly $19 billion in taxpayer funds. For some private institutions, indirect public support through tax exemptions almost equals direct public funding. Stanford University, for example, is able to avoid taxes on its roughly $8 billion in Santa Clara County, Calif., property and its $22.4 billion endowment.

Pennsylvania Universities Most Dependent on Public Funding*

  • School type:
  • Public
  • Private

*Out of the 100 universities analyzed by Bloomberg

Republican leaders in such states as Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Iowa have made clear they’re willing to use that cash as political leverage. In December, two days after Penn President Amy Gutmann announced that her university wouldn’t allow immigration agents on campus without a warrant, Knowles sent a memorandum to every member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to inform them of his upcoming bill targeting schools he thinks are “making some kind of political statement.” Gutmann wasn’t available to comment, Penn spokesman Ron Ozio said.

Last month, Pennsylvania’s state senate overwhelming approved a measure that would deny state grants to local governments that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. It’s unclear whether either the municipal bill or the college-focused one will be enacted into law, especially since the state’s governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat.

Trump, too, has gone after colleges. Less than two weeks after his inauguration, the president threatened to slash federal funding for the University of California-Berkeley after the school canceled an event featuring a divisive speaker following violent protests.

Trump can’t do it alone, and Senate Democrats could stymie efforts by congressional Republicans to deny federal funds to colleges that say they won’t cooperate with immigration authorities. That’s not the case in half the nation’s states, where Republicans control the governorship and both legislative chambers. By contrast, Democrats have complete control in just seven states.

State lawmakers could have a “huge influence” on public colleges, said Mark Schneider, a former federal education official who’s now a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. For example, in January, New Mexico State University cited a fear of losing public funding as its reason for declining to become a sanctuary campus.

For all the hubbub, school declarations that they’ll provide refuge to undocumented immigrant students are mostly gestures, said Matthew Hartley, a professor of education and associate dean at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Colleges are simply stating that they will require warrants from law enforcement officials, he said; without a warrant, federal privacy laws largely prevent them from sharing details about their students.

“I’m hard-pressed to believe that the state legislature would remove funding over a largely symbolic statement,” Hartley said.

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