These Higher Ed Policy Issues Will Define 2024

New issues will enjoy the limelight in 2024, while ongoing debates about student loan debt forgiveness will persist.
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Matthew Arrojas
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on January 3, 2024
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  • The 2024 presidential election is sure to shine a spotlight on higher education policy issues.
  • One such issue has been a point of contention for many years now: student loan debt relief.
  • New issues — such as the oversight of online college programs — will likely rise to the surface in 2024.
  • College affordability may be a talking point among presidential candidates hoping to secure votes from current and future college students.

Higher education promises to remain a hot-button issue in 2024, especially in a presidential election year that could be decided by the youth vote.

As the 2024 campaign heats up, debates surrounding student loan forgiveness, college affordability, and Pell Grant expansion will likely move to the forefront as discussions that began in 2023 come to a head.

Though Washington, D.C., isn't 100% sure who will be the Republican nominee or how the general election will be fought, lawmakers have hinted at what the major higher education policy battles will be in 2024.

They include:

  • Student loan debt forgiveness
  • College affordability
  • Online program oversight
  • Legacy admissions
  • NIL oversight
  • Workforce Pell Grants

Student Loan Debt Relief Remains Top of Mind

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down President Joe Biden's first swing at widespread federal student loan debt relief did not mark the end of the president's quest for debt forgiveness.

Shortly after the court's decision, Biden announced that he would assemble a committee to pursue loan cancellation through the negotiated rulemaking process. His Department of Education (ED) gathered a panel to discuss a potential "Plan B" debt forgiveness program in October, November, and December.

The so-called Student Loan Relief Committee did not reach a consensus on every part of the department's proposed plan.

This means the administration has the discretion to propose whatever language it wants for public comment. It plans to release its final proposal in May, which likely means it aims to implement any debt forgiveness plan by the end of 2024.

Any such plan will assuredly provoke lawsuits.

So, while 2024 may be an important year for developing any new debt forgiveness plan — especially before the presidential election — court battles may drag the process into 2025. It is notable, however, that federal student loan borrowers will at least have a clearer idea of whether their debt may be forgiven.

College Affordability Campaign Point

As presidential candidates stump across college campuses, college affordability — or the lack thereof — will no doubt be a top issue.

College affordability is sure to make headlines against the backdrop of student loan debt forgiveness. As many lawmakers and advocates have already pointed out, in order to truly address the student loan debt issue, legislators must find a way to reel in the ballooning cost of a four-year college degree.

One such solution, proposed repeatedly by President Biden, is free community college.

Beyond that, lawmakers have offered potential ways to address the issue, including:

  • Restrict how much in federal student loans graduate students can borrow
  • Require universities to act as a loan guarantor on student loans
  • Charge fees to institutions whose students default on student loans
  • Tax private college endowments more heavily
  • Increase the maximum Pell Grant award

Biden proposed a plan to double the maximum Pell Grant by 2029. However, 2024 will be an important year for that plan, as the president's deal to raise the debt ceiling put caps in place on non-defense federal spending, potentially endangering Biden's plan to double Pell.

Incoming Oversight Rules of Online College Programs

Online-only college programs have become more common in recent years, so ED plans to better define what a "distance education" program is.

ED will convene a different negotiated rulemaking committee in January, February, and March to discuss potential regulatory changes. One item on the agenda that could have a substantial impact on current and future college students is amending the definition and requirements of distance education programs.

The department offered two amendments it wants the committee to consider:

  • Create a virtual location for online-only programs, that way students can benefit from closed school discharges if the program folds
  • Remove the allowance for clock-hour programs provided through distance education to be offered through asynchronous learning

Legacy Admissions in the Crosshairs

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2023 that considering an applicant's race in college admissions — also known as affirmative action — is unlawful.

Many have shifted focus to the practice of legacy admissions in the wake of the court's decisions. Legacy admission refers to the practice, often among elite universities, of giving preferential admissions treatment to applicants whose parents attended the institution.

Three groups filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard shortly after the Supreme Court decision in an effort to ban legacy admissions. The complaint alleges that the use of legacy admissions unfairly advantages white students and that the practice violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even if legacy admissions don't become a national talking point, state legislatures may take up the issue in 2024.

Massachusetts legislators introduced a bill in 2023 that would levy a fee on colleges and universities that utilize legacy admissions.

Washington Takes on NIL, Transfer Portal

College athletes have been able to make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL) since mid-2021, but lawmakers have been slow to react to this massive change.

That has changed recently.

Senators from both sides of the aisle introduced the Protecting Athletes, Schools, and Sports (PASS) Act last year, signaling a move to regulate NIL's impact on college athletics. The PASS Act, among other things, would:

  • Require collectives and boosters to be affiliated with a school
  • Establish a national standard for NIL
  • Add transparency to NIL deals
  • Restrict the use of the transfer portal, which allows athletes to switch institutions and retain eligibility

2024 will likely bring more debate on the topic, especially in the wake of college football coaches railing against the pervasive use of the transfer portal recently. Thousands of Division I athletes utilized the portal in 2023.

The NCAA may look to reign in the practice, but it may run afoul of labor regulations. Nonetheless, it's a battle to look forward to in 2024.

Workforce Pell Grants Near the Finish Line

Legislators on Capitol Hill have long talked about extending Pell Grants to cover workforce programs as short as eight weeks, but 2024 may finally be the year Congress gets this done.

The most promising sign that short-term Pell is near the finish line came with the introduction of the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act. The highest-ranking representatives from each side of the aisle in the House Education and the Workforce Committee are co-sponsors of the bill, giving it an inside track to passing through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Current policy states that students may only receive a Pell Grant if their program lasts at least 15 weeks. The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act would lower that requirement to eight weeks.

It includes guardrails to try to ensure these programs provide value to students.

Still, not all are in favor of the proposal. The Student Borrower Protection Center said that if passed, the bill would help predatory, for-profit providers take advantage of federal financial aid to provide low-value education to students.

Others oppose language within the original proposal that prohibits the wealthiest institutions subject to an endowment tax from distributing federal student loans to students, potentially harming low- and middle-income students.