An Overview of Biden’s Higher Education Agenda
Published on February 19, 2021
- Many of Biden's education proposals are direct departures from those of Trump.
- Biden supports canceling student debt, free community college, and promoting diversity.
- The president also plans to provide more funding to colleges to offset COVID-19 losses.
As soon as he took office, President Joe Biden began tackling higher education policy. His first moves for education focused on reopening schools, closed for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and student loan relief. On his first day, Biden extended the moratorium on federal student loan payments an additional eight months through September 30.
Biden has long supported far-reaching plans for higher education. Many of the president's proposed education policies signal a direct departure from his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. These include issuing funding and guidance for school reopenings, canceling all or most student debt, making college free, and overhauling Trump-era Title IX changes.
To fully grasp Biden's plans for higher education, it's useful to look at his campaign promises, the steps he's already taken as president, and the people he's appointed to the Department of Education (ED).
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While campaigning, Biden promised to double the value of Pell Grants, which currently provide a maximum of $6,345 for one academic year. A 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the grant covered 29% of the average cost of tuition, fees, room, and board at public four-year colleges — a much lower proportion than the 79% it covered in 1975.
Under Biden’s plan, the maximum annual Pell Grant would jump to around $13,000.
Under Biden's plan, the maximum annual Pell Grant would jump to around $13,000. Such an increase could pave the way for low-income students to more easily access higher education.
Additionally, it could benefit students who attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). According to the United Negro College Fund, over 70% of HBCU students qualify for a Pell Grant.
Another of Biden's campaign pledges would make four-year, public colleges free for students from families making under $125,000.
Miguel Cardona, Biden's pick for education secretary, has spoken out about democratizing higher education. In an interview with Connecticut Public Radio, Cardona discussed establishing dual-enrollment programs for high school students so they can begin gaining college credit and carving out a path toward higher education. Earning a college degree "has to be an easier reach," Cardona said.
Underrepresented Minority Students and HBCUs
One of Biden's early actions as president was to sign an executive order meant to tackle racism in higher education and government agencies. The order not only repealed Trump's ban on diversity training programs but also instructed federal departments — including the ED — to evaluate whether their policies promoted systemic racism.
In addition to advocating for diversity and inclusion, Biden is a vocal supporter of HBCUs. In his first week in office, the White House hosted a teleconference meeting with HBCU leaders.
"Just imagine … how much more creative and innovative we'd be if this nation held the historic Black colleges and universities to the same opportunities — and minority-serving institutions — that had the same funding and resources of public universities to compete for jobs and industries of the future," Biden said in a statement.
“I believe this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equity. … We need to open the promise of America to every American.”
The Biden administration also made a powerful statement on race in higher education when the Department of Justice dropped a discrimination lawsuit — originally filed by the Trump administration — against Yale University.
In dropping the lawsuit, which alleged that Yale discriminated against Asian American and white applicants when making admission decisions, Biden took another step away from Trump regarding whether race should be a factor in college admissions.
This focus on race and diversity is exemplified by Biden's appointment of Michelle Asha Cooper as deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary in the ED's Office of Postsecondary Education. Cooper most recently served as president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which seeks to improve college accessibility for underrepresented groups.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make two years of community college free for students. Recently, First Lady Jill Biden — a community college professor who will continue to teach while carrying out her White House duties — pushed further for this tuition-free plan.
Cardona believes community colleges should have “no cost” to them.
"We have to get this done. And we have to do it now," Jill Biden said in a recording broadcast at a virtual legislative summit. "That's why we're going to make sure that everyone has access to free community college and training programs."
Meanwhile, Cardona, whose high school-aged son enrolled in a community college course, said during his confirmation hearing, "Community colleges are going to be a major part of our recovery [from the pandemic]."
Student Loan Debt
Beyond extending the moratorium on student loan payments, Biden supports canceling the first $10,000 in borrowers' student loan debt as a pandemic relief measure. Many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have called on Biden to cancel $50,000 per student loan borrower.
At a town hall in mid-February, Biden voiced his disagreement with this position: "I will not make that happen," he said in response to an audience member.
Nevertheless, while the president has yet to follow through with his own proposed policy of canceling $10,000 in student loan debt, Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted, "The president continues to support the canceling of student debt." Even as politicians and scholars debate the legality of canceling debt by executive order, Biden "would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress," noted Psaki.
The President continues to support the cancelling of student debt to bring relief to students and families. Our team is reviewing whether there are any steps he can take through executive action and he would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress.— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) February 4, 2021
Many of the people Biden has appointed to the ED have demonstrated a willingness to follow through with canceling some amount of student loan debt:
Peter Sung Ohr, Biden's appointee for acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, made a name for himself in the world of college athletics back in 2014, when his ruling that football players on scholarship at Northwestern University should be considered employees made them eligible to unionize. Ohr will likely bring his support for student-athletes to his new role in Biden's administration.
Cardona has similarly elucidated his stance on the topic of transgender student-athletes. When Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky pressed Cardona on the matter at his confirmation hearing, Cardona affirmed his support for transgender students.
"I think that it's critically important to have education systems and educators respect the rights of all students, including students who are transgender, and that they are afforded the opportunities that every other student has to participate in extracurricular activities," Cardona said.
COVID-19 and Higher Education
College enrollment continues to fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with underrepresented minority students at community colleges facing some of the biggest hurdles.
A November report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that freshman fall enrollment dropped around 30% for Black, Hispanic, and Native American community college students, compared to just 19% for white and Asian students.
To tackle this enrollment issue, Biden has called for $35 billion in additional stimulus funds for colleges and universities, on top of the $21 billion allocated in December. These funds will especially target under-resourced institutions such as community colleges, HBCUs, and tribal colleges.
Biden also signed an executive order instructing the education secretary to help institutions return to in-person classes with "evidence-based guidance." The order directs the ED's Office for Civil Rights to produce a report on the pandemic's impact on all U.S. schools.
Feature Image: Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images News