As President Trump outlined his plan to reform American higher education, he was also prepared to lower college entrance requirements, reverse the era of postsecondary education in which academic performance mattered, and put his finger on a less stringent kind of political class. His proposal also was curiously vague on the issue of “just” how many undergraduate students should be admitted. (He admitted it would “help the economy.”) Even if we accept these proposals, they would not address the systemic obstacles to higher education that help keep graduate students working on temporary graduate visas, create dual-entry Ph.D. programs for low-paid people, or permit students to become indigent Americans only if they enroll at a private university with no requirement for student support services. These would not be eliminated but some of these efforts already exist, and they need to be more vigilant.

There are at least three possible models of admission under President Trump’s current proposal that could address these problems. The first model he chose was the current system of merit-based merit selection. The reward system for college students increases the demand for majors and transfer pathways. The system compensates institutions with high-demand majors with an incentive to encourage upper-division transfers. The more competition for postsecondary admission, the more advanced the degree has to offer. Institutions can only do this so long as students are applying for postsecondary admission. After a few years, schools seek to increase or maintain access as well as affordability. In general, they have to be willing to accept many transfers of credits and incomes from more traditional sources, while maintaining reasonable admission standards. The traditional postsecondary education market will no longer care that much about class and major categories, because the newer market demands that students graduate on time and under budget.