These Higher Ed Policy Issues Will Define 2022

Here are four policy discussions that will impact higher education — and maybe control of Congress — in 2022.

February 1, 2022 · Updated on February 1, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
These Higher Ed Policy Issues Will Define 2022
Higher Ed Policy Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Caroline Brehman / Contributor / CQ-Roll Call, Inc. / Getty Images

  • Much of President Joe Biden’s higher ed agenda remains up in the air in 2022.
  • Politicians will be forced to address these policy issues in a midterm election year.
  • All four policy conversations revolve around college affordability and value.

One month into this midterm election year, it’s clear that issues impacting higher education will be at the forefront of the 2022 national political conversation.

President Joe Biden's first year in office has spurred some changes in higher education. However, his Build Back Better domestic spending bill faltered at the end of last year, leaving much of his higher education agenda — including several campaign promises — up in the air. With control of Congress at stake in November, expect the intensity surrounding policy issues old and new to be amplified as politicians jockey for the votes of future, current, and former college students.

Here are four of the policy discussions that will impact higher education — and maybe control of Congress — in 2022.

Calls for Student Debt Forgiveness

Politicians and advocates calling for student loan debt forgiveness will continue to be among the loudest voices at the Capitol this year.

Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, wrapped 2021 by reiterating their demand that Biden cancel up to $50,000 in outstanding student loan debt per person.

Advocacy groups, meanwhile, spent the last weeks of 2021 warning that the end of the payment moratorium — it was scheduled to end today — would burden the budgets of former students and drag the U.S. economy down. A three-month extension announced Dec. 22 may have bought the Biden administration more time, but as April approaches, those same advocates turn the volume up on their campaign.

Also looming large on the 2022 higher ed policy discussion is Biden’s unfulfilled campaign promise to cancel up to $10,000 in debt per person.

In April 2021, Biden’s chief of staff said that the president had asked the Department of Education (ED) to look into whether he had the power to cancel that debt through executive order. However, the administration has yet to release an update. Instead, a heavily redacted memo surfaced in November 2021, offering little insight into the president's executive ability to forgive student debt.

Democratic leadership is done waiting in 2022, with Warren last week leading a bicameral cadre calling on the Biden administration to release the ED memo outlining the administration’s legal authority to cancel federal student loan debt.

“We urge you to use every tool at your disposal to deliver relief to the millions of families inspired by your proposal to make a debt-free college degree within their reach by eliminating up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for all families before payments resume,” said the letter signed by more than 80 bicameral lawmakers.

The alternative to executive order would be passing a bill through Congress in a midterm election year. If such legislation is introduced, it would be debated at the same time that many Americans see their debts cancelled through the ongoing waiver for the public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) program. Advocacy groups recently put forth a plan for a similar waiver for those seeking forgiveness through an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan.

Negotiating the Future of For-Profit Colleges

The Biden administration made oversight of colleges and universities, particularly for-profit ones, a higher ed priority in year one.

ED negotiated new regulations for borrower defense claims and closed-school discharge during a December 2021 negotiated rulemaking session. Both of these issues largely affect for-profit colleges, which are the main targets of borrower-defense and closed-school discharge claims.

It appears that the administration will take an even more targeted approach to regulating these institutions in 2022.

ED began another negotiated rulemaking session on Jan. 18. Gainful employment and the 90/10 rule headline the issues that will be reevaluated during upcoming sessions, with a final consensus vote slated for late March.

Both gainful employment and the 90/10 rule regulate how much an institution can collect in federal financial aid from students, or whether they can at all. The gainful employment rule measures how much debt students take on to pursue a degree and compares that to the annual salaries they earn after finishing their education. The rule specifically applies to private for-profit institutions and non-degree certificate programs.

Most negotiators voted in favor of using the 2014 gainful employment rules, which were rolled back during President Donald Trump's administration, as a baseline to reinstate the oversight.

Many higher education advocates are also campaigning for the 90/10 rule to be changed. Currently, the rule forbids for-profit colleges from receiving more than 90% of their revenue from federal financial aid. GI Bill benefits from veteran students do not count toward that 90%, something many advocates seek to change. However, for-profit schools are invested in keeping the rule as is.

Pell Grant Promises

Momentum has been building for years to make a significant change to the Pell Federal Grant Program, and it all may come to a head in 2022.

Pell Grants are one the most common forms of federal financial aid and a tool nearly 7 million low- and middle-income students use each year to help pay for higher education. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant for the 2021-2022 award year is $6,495, according to the ED. The minimum is $650.

Much of the recent conversation has revolved around how much to increase the maximum award.

Biden campaigned on the promise of doubling the maximum Pell Grant award. However, his Build Back Better Act proposal in late 2021 only included an 8.5% increase to the maximum, raising it to $7,045 per year.

The future of the Build Back Better plan is now in doubt. Advocates for doubling the Pell Grant award, including the Double Pell Alliance, may use that as an opportunity to push for a more dramatic increase.

A report from the National College Attainment Network found that a maximum Pell Grant could cover approximately 79% of a student's tuition, fees, and living expenses during the 1975-1976 academic year. During the 2021-2022 school year, a maximum Pell Grant covered just 28% of those costs. Doubling the maximum Pell Grant could raise that percentage to 56% next year.

Data Enters the Discussion

Congress has shown renewed interest in making data about institutions of higher education more accessible for prospective college students. Both the College Affordability Act and College Transparency Act would mandate the creation of a student-level data network (SLDN) that would provide more information on college students and their outcomes at every college and university.

The Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and RTI International convened a panel of experts to discuss what an all-encompassing SLDN might look like. Most importantly, they talked about data that should be included that isn't currently part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Some panelists advocated for collecting data on:

  • Cumulative student debt
  • Number of first-generation college students enrolled
  • Number of veterans enrolled
  • Post-completion outcomes, including aggregate earnings
  • Cost of attendance

More recently, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa introduced the Net Price Calculator Improvement Act, which would give prospective students a more accurate estimate of the price of each college. The Student Loan Disclosure Modernization Act would require the ED to be more transparent with students regarding loan terms, including annual interest rates.

Advocates for more data say that transparency will allow students to make more informed decisions before enrollment.