How will a Biden administration shape higher education?

When President-Elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he is expected to usher in a new era for higher education—increasing support for the sector, pursuing tuition-free college, addressing loan debt, reinstituting regulations on for-profit colleges, and creating a more welcoming environment for international and undocumented students. 

In his plan for postsecondary education, Biden asserts that “12 years of education is no longer enough for American workers to remain competitive and earn a middle class income” and pledges to “strengthen college as the reliable pathway to the middle class.” 

Biden stands in “sharp contrast to President Trump, whose administration spent much of the past four years actively attacking higher education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes. “Across most of public and private nonprofit higher ed, there is a sigh of relief,” Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said to NPR.  

Two January Senate runoff races in Georgia will determine whether Biden will be working with a unified or divided Congress—and the extent to which Biden will be able to realize his higher education goals. If Republicans retain the Senate majority, observers expect Biden to focus on policies that can be shaped under his executive powers. 

“Winning the presidency is critical but insufficient to enacting many of the bold initiatives that the Biden campaign has proposed in education, health care, and tax policy,” Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations, told Inside Higher Ed. “Once in office, presidents can do many things to advance their agendas, but actually making major changes in public policy requires Senate approval.”

College affordability

Biden’s plan for tuition-free college is one policy likely to hinge on Congressional support. The president-elect has proposed making public community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities tuition-free for all U.S. students. Other four-year public colleges and universities would be tuition-free for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year.   

Notably, Biden’s plan would include older students and students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and is a “first-dollar” model, meaning that it would fully cover tuition before applying students’ other federal and state financial aid. Those aid dollars could then be used to cover expenses beyond tuition.

Related: Georgetown report analyzes ‘dollars and sense’ of free-college plans >

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that Biden’s proposal would pay for itself within 10 years, when the amount of tax revenue associated with the increase in college attainment would exceed the program’s cost. Biden’s plan calls for the federal government to cover three-fourths of the cost, with states picking up the rest—a potential hurdle as states slash budgets to reflect the pandemic-induced recession. 

Biden also has proposed restoring formerly incarcerated individuals’ Pell Grant-eligibility and doubling the maximum Pell award, which is currently $6,345. A Republican-controlled Senate likely would result in a smaller-than-proposed Pell increase, The Chronicle suggests. 

Community college

Even beyond his free-college proposal, the president-elect has signaled that he sees community colleges as a crucial focus in the effort to create a more inclusive middle class. Biden’s higher education plan includes a new grant program to support community colleges in implementing evidence-based practices that increase their students’ retention and completion. 

Two-year institutions are sure to stay top-of-mind during Biden’s presidency, as Dr. Jill Biden, the incoming first lady, teaches at Northern Virginia Community College. “For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” Biden said in a recent speech.

“Dr. Biden has been a positive force for community colleges by helping people understand better some of the essential work we do,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges. “Certainly it would be good to have someone who understands that in the White House.”

HBCU investment

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) also figure prominently in Biden’s education plans—and have a champion in Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University.  

Related: Kamala Harris’s historic VP selection seen as a big win for HBCUs >

Biden has said he will invest more than $70 billion in HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) to increase affordability and help remedy historic funding inequities. The agenda, crafted in partnership with Harris, includes $10 billion to create research incubators at HBCUs, $20 billion to build research facilities and upgrade digital infrastructure, and a pledge to ensure federal agencies resolve disparities in the amount of federal research funds directed to HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs. 

HBCU advocates hope that having Harris at the highest level of government will help in securing legislative support. “This platform is the gold standard, but we have to bring life to it and that’s going to require bipartisan support,” United Negro College Fund President Michael L. Lomax, told The Washington Post.

International students

Some higher education stakeholders, especially international and undocumented students, could see significant change as soon as Biden is sworn in as president. He has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries. He also will have an opportunity to reverse a recent White House proposal restricting international student visas to four year-periods and could do away with the restriction preventing undocumented students from receiving Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act emergency grants.

Related: Georgetown opposes new DHS rule restricting international student stays >

Biden also has pledged to immediately reinstate the DACA program through an executive order. The Trump administration stopped accepting new DACA applications in 2017 and repeatedly sought to terminate the program. 

Advocates for undocumented students also are urging Biden to pursue a more lasting solution—a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency—which would require the backing of Congress. According to Inside Higher Ed, the Presidents’ Alliance for Higher Education and Immigration, of which Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia is a founding member, is recommending a series of administrative actions Biden’s administration could take in its first 100 days to make higher education more welcoming to undocumented and international students.

“I’m relieved,” Reyhan Ayas, a Princeton doctoral student from Turkey, said about the election results in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Recently, it felt like no matter how hard I studied or how hard I worked, it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be welcome here.”

Student debt

The Biden presidency also is likely to bring relief for the millions of Americans with student loan debt. Biden’s plan would provide student debt relief for borrowers with undergraduate student loans who earn less than $125,000 and attended a public university, MSI, or HBCU. He also has proposed canceling $10,000 in student loan debt for all borrowers, which would clear the debt of more than one-third of borrowers, according to Bloomberg Government. Biden’s plan also calls for a repayment model that requires borrowers to pay five percent of discretionary income over $25,000 and forgives the remainder after 20 years. 

The ongoing strain of the pandemic and the executive authority used by President Trump to extend a pause on student-loan repayments through December may pave the way for broader loan forgiveness, experts say. In the short-term, advocates are calling on Biden to not only extend the payment pause but also broaden it to all, not just federal, student loan borrowers. Some also are encouraging Biden to use executive powers to more aggressively forgive student loan debt. 

“I would expect there’s going to be some sort of loan forgiveness,” said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “It’s become too much of a signature issue at this point.”

Ultimately, higher ed experts and advocates expect the Biden administration to take a more active role in addressing higher education access and affordability. “This will be an administration that cares about the challenges that students are facing, that knows that the cost of college is a significant problem and needs to be addressed both on the front end and the back end,” said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

Topics in this story
, , , , ,

Next Up

Companies maintain tuition assistance programs in spite of pandemic, economic downturn

Employers often scale back benefits amid an economic downturn, but tuition-reimbursement programs appear to be bucking the trend.