Biden takes action on immigration, extends loan repayment freeze

The Biden-Harris administration’s first week brought several announcements with implications for undocumented students, student borrowers, and college reopening plans. 

Just hours after the Inauguration, there were “already signs that the new administration is taking a more friendly stance toward higher education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote on its log of policy developments.

Immediate changes for immigration

President Joe Biden made immigration a first-day priority, repealing the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting African and Muslim-majority countries. Higher education leaders had repeatedly voiced concerns about the ban and the message it sent to international students.

Biden also directed the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize “preserving and fortifying” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Around 454,000 U.S. college students are undocumented, and nearly half of those students are eligible for DACA. The Trump administration had repeatedly sought to end DACA but ultimately failed

Biden now hopes to establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and sent a multifaceted proposal to Congress last week. The bill would allow DACA recipients to immediately apply for permanent residency—which, in turn, would enable them to seek federal financial aid. Other undocumented students could apply for temporary legal status and then seek permanent resident status five years later, pending background checks and other qualifications. In addition, students graduating from U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees would be able to more easily extend their stay. However, the bill “could well have a difficult path in Congress, even with the Democrats’ majorities,” Inside Higher Ed cautions. 

Extension of repayment pause, appointment of student borrower advocate

As part of the 17 executive actions signed on his first day in office, Biden also requested that the U.S. Department of Education extend the pause on student loan payments through September. The pause had been slated to expire on February 1. 

“Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families. They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table,” an education department official said in a statement announcing the nine-month forbearance extension. 

Student loan borrowers also will have a “strong advocate” in Rohit Chopra, Biden’s pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Chopra, who will need to be confirmed by the Senate, previously served as the CFPB’s student-loan ombudsman and is known for his work addressing exploitive practices among student loan servicers and for-profit colleges. 

“Rohit’s nomination means that the strongest advocate for student-loan borrowers in our current history will be leading the bureau,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director of the Student Debt Crisis advocacy group, told The Chronicle.

A request for guidance on college reopening

Noting that colleges and universities are wanting for “detailed guidance on recommended COVID-19 protocols that covers a variety of scenarios,” Biden issued an executive order on supporting school reopening as part of the White House’s COVID-19 strategy. 

The order calls on federal agencies to go beyond the current CDC guidance, and provide more specific “evidence-based guidance to institutions of higher education on safely reopening for in-person learning, which shall take into account considerations such as the institution’s setting, resources, and the population it serves.” It also directs the Education Department to create a “best practices clearinghouse” to facilitate information sharing and to offer technical assistance to ensure colleges can provide high-quality remote learning. 

Moreover, given that “students from low-income families are nearly twice as likely to report canceling their plans to attend college” amid COVID-19, the order asks education officials to investigate COVID-19’s disparate impact on students from Kindergarten through college.

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