These Higher Ed Policy Issues Will Define 2023

New higher education policies may take center stage in 2023, but issues like student loan debt forgiveness still need to be ironed out.
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  • Two Supreme Court decisions involving affirmative action and student loan debt forgiveness are sure to capture headlines.
  • Meanwhile, growing unrest in China could have ripple effects that'll impact higher education in the U.S.
  • The fight over academic freedom is just starting to heat up and may come to a head in 2023.

Higher education issues such as student debt forgiveness and affirmative action seized the national stage last year.

And just a few weeks into 2023, it's clear that many of those battles will continue to be fought in 2023.

But with a fresh Congress sworn in, new political priorities like free speech assurances on college campuses and China's role in U.S. higher education may also grab headlines in the upcoming year.

Here are policy discussions that will impact higher education in 2023.

Student Loan Debt Cancellation Arguments Ongoing

Don't expect the noise surrounding federal student loan debt to die down anytime soon.

President Joe Biden's plan will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in February, where justices will ultimately decide on the legality of the Department of Education's (ED) program. Advocacy groups are already rallying support for protests outside of the court during a hearing sure to impact the pocketbooks of millions of Americans.

A decision is expected soon after the hearing, but an exact timeline is unknown.

Even after the Supreme Court issues its decision, however, it won't lie dormant.

If the court rules in favor of Biden's administration, then comes the issue of enforcing debt forgiveness. The status of Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) is hazy, while a level-funding of Federal Student Aid (FSA) may cause complications in doling out forgiveness to borrowers.

The clock is ticking, as the pause on federal student loan payments will expire on July 1, Biden said.

If the court rules in favor of those aiming to block debt forgiveness, there will no doubt be an outcry from borrower advocates.

With a split Congress, there is little chance Democrats will be able to pass a debt forgiveness bill in both chambers. Biden will, therefore, have to decide whether it's worth pursuing forgiveness through different means — perhaps negotiated rulemaking — or whether to drop the issue altogether.

Affirmative Action Decision Imminent

The Supreme Court will also play a big role in another key higher education issue: affirmative action.

The court heard oral arguments in late October over the legality of using race under a limited scope in college admissions. While many expect the court to strike down affirmative action, one expert BestColleges spoke with described alternative routes the court could go in modifying the policy or allowing it to live on.

Whatever the case, the debate over affirmative action will not end with the Supreme Court's ruling.

Next will come the all-important question of how to implement the court's decision. At many schools, affirmative action has been a crucial part of admissions for decades. The role of race in college admissions is a dial, not a switch, so tuning it down to an acceptable level will be a policy issue in and of itself.

Chinese Influence Remains in the Crosshairs

Students from China are important to many schools' international admissions plans, but tensions between the U.S. and China have strained the relationship.

Last year saw the end of the so-called "China Initiative," a government initiative that sought to stamp out trade secret theft using university professors. Biden ended the program after opponents said it unjustly targeted Chinese professors and created a chilling effect on research.

A committee also recently put forth recommendations for how universities can ensure Confucius Institutes — Chinese-funded language and cultural centers — don't violate academic freedom through a waiver.

Still, even without the China Initiative and controls on Confucius Institutes, the government will enact new checks on Chinese involvement in U.S. institutions in 2023. The CHIPS and Science Act will now force universities to disclose gifts and contracts worth more than $50,000 from a foreign source.

New committee leadership in the House of Representatives could bring increased scrutiny of ties between universities and China.

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican representing Wisconsin, told Politico in early January that as chair of the new House Select Committee on China, "the health of our educational system is tied to our success."

Understanding the True Cost of College

A late 2022 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) blew open a discussion on transparency in the true cost of college.

According to GAO's report, just 9% of the institutions it examined accurately told students the estimated net price of attendance through financial aid offers. GAO examined financial aid offers from 176 colleges and universities.

Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina will likely lead the charge in addressing this issue.

Foxx is once again the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and she was also the lawmaker who requested the report from GAO.

Soon after GAO released the report, she introduced the College Cost Transparency and Student Protection Act. The bill would force institutions receiving federal funds to list direct costs (tuition and fees) and indirect costs (housing, books, etc.) in financial aid offers.

Campus Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Even with the defeat of Florida's Stop WOKE Act, the crusade to legislate what's discussed on college campuses may not be over.

The latest action also took place in Florida to kick off 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently requested that all public institutions file a list of their spending related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory. His administration also recently asked universities to detail their spending on transgender care.

His marquee action last year — the Stop WOKE Act — was struck down in court. That action could prevent other states from pursuing similar laws, attorney Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression previously told BestColleges. We won't know until legislative sessions for 2023 kick off early in the year.

Republicans in Congress are concurrently concerned about free speech on campus.

Foxx co-penned a letter in September to ED Secretary Miguel Cardona in which she expressed concern that "colleges and universities are undermining free speech and academic freedom on their campuses."

She is specifically concerned that conservative speech is being chilled on college campuses, while "left-leaning orthodoxy" is tolerated.

Advocates Demand Oversight of OPMs

The noise surrounding online program management companies (OPMs) has been steadily growing, and advocates hope 2023 is the year ED enforces new rules on these partnerships.

OPMs contract with public colleges and universities to design and run their online degree and certificate programs. That alone isn't the problem. The concern is that these OPMs also market and recruit these online programs in exchange for a tuition revenue share for any online students the OPM manages to recruit.

Advocates say this incentivizes OPMs to prioritize aggressive recruitment, rather than building a successful online program.

There is a federal ban on incentive compensation, but guidance issued by ED in 2011 provided a loophole for these tuition revenue share agreements. Advocates have called on Cardona to rescind this guidance.

A recent analysis from the Century Foundation instead called for a gradual wind-down of these partnerships to allow OPMs and institutions to renegotiate contracts.

"The concept of reversing an entrenched custom may seem intimidating, but in this case, it will leave colleges, and students, better off," Stephanie Hall of the Century Foundation wrote. "The opportunity to renegotiate contracts with providers means institutions can apply the lessons learned from over a decade of operating online education programs.

Pell Grant Promises Persist

President Biden promised to double the maximum Pell Grant award by 2029, but based on 2023's budget, he may already be falling behind.

Congress will start negotiating the next fiscal year budget later in 2023, which could give the president a chance to deliver on his promise. The split Congress may be a challenge in achieving that goal, however.

Policy experts will also continue to monitor proposals to expand the use of Pell Grants to short-term credential programs. It's an issue that has come up in years past, with momentum slowly building in favor of passing the measure.

A version of this expansion passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022 but failed in the Senate. There is bipartisan support behind the measure.