President-elect Joe Biden has promised free college and debt forgiveness. Students could see new policies and relief funds as soon as January.

What a Biden Presidency Means for College Students


  • President-elect Joe Biden promises big changes to higher education.
  • His plans for free college and student debt forgiveness require bipartisan support.
  • Other key issues for college students could be impacted on his first day in office.
  • Several names have already been floated for Biden's Secretary of Education.

As the presidential election drew closer, some college campuses prepared for unrest. But the day ended up being largely quiet, perhaps because students had already voiced their opinions at the polls. This year, college students, who make up one of the most significant voting blocs in the country, might have contributed to record voter turnout.

Before election day could stretch into election week, the Associated Press called the presidential election for Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden. A Biden presidency — supported by 72% of college students, according to recent polls — promises sizable shake-ups in higher education.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has still not conceded the race. His legal team is currently pursuing lawsuits in several key battleground states.

How a Biden Presidency Impacts College Students

College students stand to be among the first to feel the effects of the final election results. In addition to education-specific questions about topics like college affordability and student loan debt forgiveness, the two prospective administrations represent a hard fork on other issues important to college students, including the environment, healthcare, and the government's COVID-19 response.

If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, Biden could have trouble passing some of the progressive legislation he promised students, such as free college for families making less than $125,000. "I don't think free college is coming anytime soon," says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Even without the full support of the House and Senate, Biden could take executive action to push through some education reforms, such as extending the COVID-19 moratorium on federal student loans.

Improved COVID-19 Response on College Campuses

Biden's first days as the president-elect focused on COVID-19 efforts, including assembling a task force. A large share of those efforts, according to campaign promises, could focus on supporting schools and students.

Biden supports issuing national COVID-19 guidelines for schools.

Unlike the Trump administration, Biden supports issuing national guidelines for schools and colleges. In addition to health and safety protocols, Biden plans to send at least $88 billion to state education systems to help pay for protective equipment, ventilation systems, reduced class sizes, and other COVID-19 expenses.

While the current Department of Education has said it won't provide top-down reopening plans, it has offered financial relief to students. Earlier this year, the department provided emergency cash grants to students and placed a moratorium on student debt collection.

In July, President Trump requested $105 billion in education funding to help schools reopen. In a move widely criticized by education leaders, however, the president told schools the funds would only go toward in-person education.

Tuition-Free College for Many Students

As presidential candidates, neither Biden nor Vice President-elect Kamala Harris touted 100% tuition-free college for all, as Senator Bernie Sanders had done. Instead, both presented pared-down versions, with Biden supporting free community college and Harris concentrating on college affordability for students of color.

But Biden has gradually adopted full-scale free-college plans. Now, the president-elect endorses free four-year college for families making under $125,000 a year. Under this proposal, the federal government would cover 75% of college tuition costs, and states would make up the remaining 25%.

Mirroring the national liberal/conservative divide on the subject, the Trump administration wholly rejects the notion of free college.

Expanded Student Loan Forgiveness and Debt Relief

Biden has promoted a number of different approaches to tackling the student loan crisis. Despite overlap, he suggests these plans would work in concert.

The president-elect promises to revamp the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which cancels the remaining debt of college graduates who work for government agencies, schools, and nonprofits after making 10 years of payments. The current program has failed to help most applicants, including teachers. He also pledges a simplified, more affordable income-based repayment plan for all students.

Biden could pursue three other measures to make it easier for some students to rid themselves of debt:

  • Revive an Obama-era policy that empowers the administration to cancel the debt of students who were misled by colleges' claims of high graduation or job placement rates.
  • Restore the gainful employment rule, which threatens to cut off federal student aid to vocational programs whose graduates consistently have high loan payments relative to their incomes.
  • Enact Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal to allow student loan debt to be more easily discharged in bankruptcy.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden presented more and more dramatic tactics for addressing the student debt crisis. First he called to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt for all learners in response to the recession. Later he announced he would forgive all loan debt from two- and four-year public colleges, HBCUs, and private minority-serving institutions for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year.

Biden promises to forgive all loan debt for students whose families make less than $125,000.

Biden's latest and broadest debt cancellation proposal still stops short of the wholesale student debt forgiveness espoused by Sanders, whose plan would write off all $1.7 trillion in federal and private student loan debt.

When it comes to tackling student debt, President Trump prefers reducing new loan amounts rather than erasing existing ones. The Trump administration has proposed incentivizing colleges to keep costs low, and student outcomes high, by putting schools on the hook for student loan defaults.

Aside from the moratorium on student debt collection — which Biden pledges to extend — the Trump administration has earmarked $25 billion of a new $1.8 trillion stimulus package to cover outstanding student debt.

Stronger Sexual Misconduct Rules on College Campuses

President Trump used executive orders to undo several Obama-era education policies, but Biden could switch them back. One of the first college-related changes Biden has vowed to enact is how sexual assault is treated under Title IX.

In a controversial move that angered victims' rights activists, President Trump's Department of Education rewrote Title IX regulations detailing how campuses investigate sexual misconduct. Under former President Barack Obama, the department issued informal instructions to colleges that emphasized believing victims. The revised rules require due process, the presumption of innocence, and criminal court standards for evidence.

Who Biden Might Pick for Secretary of Education

Of all a president's cabinet picks, secretary of education is typically the least controversial. This was not the case with President Trump's 2017 appointment of Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had no direct experience with education. Biden's selection promises to be far less polarizing.

Biden pledges to appoint a public school teacher to the position of education secretary.

The president-elect has pledged to appoint a public school teacher to the position — specifically someone who has logged serious class time. A search committee helps new presidents narrow the field.

For Biden, that committee is being led by a prospective candidate for the education secretary role. Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, was considered for education secretary by President Obama back in 2008. Though again under consideration, Darling-Hammond has said she's not interested in the position.

Two other names being floated include Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association. Biden strongly aligns himself with teacher unions, and both Weingarten and García are teacher union leaders.


Feature Image: ANGELA WEISS / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images