What Biden Said — and Didn’t Say — About Higher Ed in State of the Union

The president called for Pell Grant expansions, additional HBCU funding, and free community college, but whether the speech breathes new life into the policy proposals remains to be seen.

March 2, 2022 · Updated on March 7, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
What Biden Said — and Didn’t Say — About Higher Ed in State of the Union
Higher Ed Policy Student Voting
Photo by Pool / Getty Images News / Getty Images

  • Many of the higher ed policy issues included in Build Back Better were resurfaced in the speech.
  • The president did not address the student debt crisis.
  • Student-advocacy groups praised Biden's message on higher education.

President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night — a speech that prioritized Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and domestic economic issues.

Still, a few of the president's higher education priorities earned a spot in the speech: Biden called for an expansion of the maximum Pell Grant award, funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and investments in the nation's community colleges.

All three of these issues were central to his initial Build Back Better framework. Biden's domestic legislative agenda was wrapped up in the immense spending package that faltered at the end of last year. Much of his higher education agenda — including several campaign promises — were left up in the air.

What Biden Said About Higher Ed

Biden's comments on higher education were brief, but they did hit on his primary targets during his first year in office.

"Let's increase Pell Grants and increase our historic support of HBCUs, and invest in what Jill — our first lady who teaches full time — calls America's best-kept secret: community colleges," Biden said a little more than halfway through his one-hour speech.

Biden's Build Back Better plan would have increased the Pell Grant maximum award by $550 to $7,045, an 8.5% increase. While an improvement, that increase is still far below his campaign pledge to double the amount, which many advocacy groups are still pining for.

The Build Back Better plan would have also increased funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives allocated $10 billion for these institutions, including research grants specifically for these schools.

The president also campaigned on the promise of tuition-free community college for all.

However, that plan stalled early in Build Back Better negotiations and was later cut entirely. Biden did not specifically address this policy in his State of the Union, only promising to invest in these institutions.

What Biden Didn't Say About Higher Ed

Notably, Biden did not mention student debt during Tuesday's address.

Student loan repayment is set to resume May 1, prompting politicians and advocacy groups to again begin rallying for student debt cancellation in recent months and weeks. With over $1.7 trillion in U.S. student loan debt, some were disappointed by the lack of airtime to the topic during Biden's speech.

With over $1.7 trillion in U.S. student loan debt, some were disappointed by the lack of airtime to the topic during Biden's speech.

Biden campaigned on the promise to cancel up to $10,000 in student loan debt per person, but he has yet to address that promise during his presidency.

In an appearance on MSNBC following Biden's speech, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said it "left a little bit to be desired for key constituencies."

"Things like student loan debt, larger themes and crises in education, as well as the piece on immigration was really just glossed over," Ocasio-Cortez said.

Here's How Higher Ed Reacted

Many prominent advocacy groups responded positively to Biden's State of the Union, primarily in response to the potential Pell Grant increase.

"Our nation's higher education system remains a powerful driver of social and economic mobility, but as long as a high-quality, affordable degree remains out of reach for many, it can reinforce rather than combat systemic racial and economic inequities," Sameer Gadkaree, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said in a statement.

"The president is right to prioritize higher education investments as critical to a robust recovery from the pandemic. Students and their families cannot afford to wait."

The American Council on Education said Biden will reportedly increase the maximum Pell Grant by "at least" $2,000. While the president didn't specify the size of the increase in his speech, a $2,000 bump would constitute a $31% increase.

Jason Altmire, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, similarly praised a potential $2,000 Pell Grant increase, as did Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). These statements about a $2,000 increase may offer insight into what Biden plans to propose this year.

"It is rare in Washington for a leader to stand by priorities. It is rarer for HBCUs to be that priority."

— Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at UNCF

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at UNCF, also praised the president's emphasis on HBCUs.

"It is rare in Washington for a leader to stand by priorities. It is rarer for HBCUs to be that priority," Murray said. "President Biden is really showing that he stands with students from vulnerable backgrounds and the institutions that best serve their needs, and those are HBCUs."

Advocacy groups addressing student debt offered less praise for the president's speech.

"The cost of education, and the enormous debt looming over American families, remains one of the most challenging economic issues of our time," said Natalia Abrams, president of the Student Debt Crisis Center.

"With economic uncertainty growing every day, the president has the unique ability to free families from financial distress immediately by canceling student debt by executive action and we call on him to do so immediately."

Abrams added that the State of the Union would have been the "perfect time" for Biden to address the issue.