Elections Have Consequences | Leadership in Higher Education

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On election day – perhaps we will have to call it “election week” from now on– a highly polarized country produced a deeply divided result.  Biden won the presidency and Kamala Harris made history as our first woman and woman of color to become Vice President-elect.  But while Biden produced a convincing victory, Democrats did not fare as well down-ticket.  The Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to capture the Senate.  We will not know which political party controls the upper house until January, when Georgia will hold a special election that will decide the fate of both of its Senate seats.  Republicans, meanwhile, maintained control of the legislatures in key states like North Carolina, Texas and Florida, a development of immense importance as we go into the once-per-decade Congressional redistricting process. 

Joe Biden ran on a strong pro-higher education agenda that called for tuition-free public college education, a doubling of Pell grants, a crack-down on exploitative for-profit schools, changes to Title IX, debt forgiveness, and financial assistance to community colleges and HBCUs.  These issues are clearly personal to him and his family.  Future First Lady Jill Biden is a respected high school teacher and community college professor.  As Biden declared in his victory speech: “Jill’s a military mom, an educator. She’s dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does. It’s who she is. For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You going to have one of your own in the White House.”  This was great news for both the K-12 and higher education communities, which have felt battered during the Trump presidency. 

During the campaign, I was very enthusiastic about Biden’s higher education plan, and I had hoped that Democrats would capture enough Senate seats to make it a reality.  Now, however, the situation looks more complicated.  Even if the Democrats capture control of the Senate in January, they may not be able to muster enough votes to eliminate the filibuster.  As a result, they will likely need 60 votes in the Senate – including many Republican votes – to move their legislative agenda through Congress. 

So what does this divided election outcome mean for the future of higher ed?  When government is divided, presidents make much of their progress through non-legislative action: executive orders and regulatory changes.  Expect Biden to follow that route.  Biden will, I expect, issue new regulations repealing the Trump Administration’s controversial Title IX sexual assault rules, providing greater clarity, institutional flexibility, and protection for victims.  Biden will also provide new rules cracking down on for-profit colleges that leave students with massive debt and no realistic job prospects.  These will be important and welcome achievements.

A more interesting – and legally complex – issue is whether Biden can provide debt relief without Congressional approval.  During the campaign, Biden endorsed a number of important debt forgiveness and debt limitation ideas in response to America’s $1.6 trillion college debt crisis, including: up to $10,000 in temporary student debt relief per borrower to help respond to COVID-19 economic dislocation; a moratorium on interest accrual on federal student loans for people earning less than $25,000; limiting debt payments to no more than 5 percent of discretionary income for those earning more than $25,000; and automatic loan forgiveness after 20 years.  At first blush, changes of this magnitude to the nation’s student loan program would seem to require Congressional action.  Earlier this year, however, President Trump provided temporary debt relief by executive order in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and this provides some precedent for change by executive fiat.  I expect Biden to advance a two-prong strategy.  He will likely provide significant additional debt relief by executive order – as much as his lawyers think is legally defensible, given the current economic and health crisis — and then package the rest of his ideas into a legislative proposal and hope Senate Republicans are willing to give it a fair hearing. 

The remainder of Biden’s ambitious agenda will have to go to Congress for debate. What can we expect there? It is possible, of course, that Republicans in the Senate will dig in and fight against any possible Biden legislative “wins.” Hopefully, a greater spirit of cooperation will prevail. If the two parties can agree to work together, several of Biden’s ideas have a good chance of winning the bipartisan support necessary for passage. 

The Pell Grant program, for example, has always enjoyed broad support from both parties. For this reason, I can imagine Biden’s proposal to double the value of Pell grants may move forward, particularly if it is combined with tuition cost-control measures that some Republicans might favor. I also think financial support for HBCUs and community colleges has a strong fighting chance, though perhaps on a smaller scale than Biden would like. Trump supported HBCUs, a fact that will not be lost on Republican senators in states with large African-American populations.  And there is a community college in virtually every Congressional district, making support for them palatable to both parties.  Expect this issue to arise very early in Biden’s term, as Congress debates a possible COVID relief and economic stimulus package. 

Other parts of Biden’s plan may fall by the wayside.  The most important loss is likely to be tuition-free college.  During the campaign, Biden endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all students whose family incomes are below $125,000.  This idea has strong support among Democratic voters, but conservative voters strongly oppose it.  The plan is also extremely expensive, a non-trivial objection for some fiscal conservatives, given our current $3.3 trillion budget deficit.  I support the idea of tuition-free public college, which could be as transformative socially and economically as the G.I. Bill, but I expect that it will be very hard to pass unless Democrats capture both houses of Congress by a substantial margin at some point in the future.  If Biden is serious about moving this idea forward now, he might need to link tuition-free college to public service, with the benefit passing only to those who serve our county in the armed forces or in volunteer programs like Americorps. 

In sum, I think President-elect Biden has a very good chance of making serious progress on higher education during his first year in office.  Some aspects of his program may be very hard to pass, given the sheer number of Republican votes in the Senate.  Nevertheless, I still expect his administration to make college more affordable, reduce debt burdens, crack down on unethical for-profit schools, and improve Title IX, and that would be great for America. 

           



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