The 11/9 IHE article Biden’s Victory Could Be Transformative contains this memorable sentence:
“Higher education, however, not only took a back seat, but was buried under the luggage somewhere in the trunk during a campaign that focused on the adequacy of Trump’s response to the pandemic and the polar-opposite demeanors of the candidates”.
As all of us try to unpack the meaning of a Biden presidency on the next four years of higher education, I’d like to offer the following three hopes for the Biden Education Department:
Hope #1 – Expertise:
Education Department policies, regulations, priorities, and initiatives have an enormous impact on higher education. On everything from postsecondary financing to student costs, online education to international students, what the Education Department does will impact the entire postsecondary ecosystem. As with every policy, regulation, and initiative – there is bound to be disagreements. Policy disagreements are especially consequential for rules and regulations around online education and the interplay between non-profit and for-profit players.
Without pre-judging the direction of a Biden Education Department policies, our entire postsecondary community can agree that we want to see expertise within the department. There were active debates about ED policies and regulations during the Obama administration, but there was widespread agreement across higher education that the department was staffed by higher ed experts. This recognized expertise was mostly a result of the leadership of Ted Mitchell, who served as under secretary in charge of postsecondary education.
The deep expertise and long experience that Ted has now brought to ACE as its president was very much in evidence at ED during his tenure. People of goodwill could disagree with Mitchell’s actions and priorities, but they could never question his commitment to higher education or his expertise and credibility in the sector. My hope is that Biden and the next education secretary prioritize the recruitment of an under secretary in charge of postsecondary education who has as much experience, credibility, and expertise as Mitchell brought to the job.
Hope #2 – Convening:
Again, there are all sorts of room for debates and disagreement around higher ed policy. How the Education Department approaches non-profit/for-profit collaboration (especially in the online program management OPM space) will be particularly crucial in determining the next chapter of online learning. People of good-will and good-intent can and will disagree strongly on the policy stance that a Biden Education Department should take around various issues critical to higher education.
One role that the Education Department can play in advancing and improving higher education is to act as a convener. Almost uniquely among other higher ed players, ED can gather constituents and stakeholders from across the postsecondary ecosystem. Ted Mitchell’s team was particularly adept at creating opportunities for people from universities, foundations, government, associations, consultants, investors, companies, and scholars to come together and share ideas and arguments related to policies and initiatives. Non-incremental improvements in access, costs, and quality will require the participation of many players to achieve.
Schools, government, companies, and associations will not achieve sector-wide change on their own. These groups may not always agree on the best policies or regulations. But it is essential for everyone in the postsecondary ecosystem to understand where each other is coming from. This understanding requires both information exchange and some level of trust, both of which can be fostered by getting a diverse array of groups and people into a single room to talk.
Hope #3 – Ambition:
Beyond expertise and convening, my third wish for a Biden ED is ambition. We need a team in place at the department that is not afraid to think big about the future of higher education. While we may disagree on the effectiveness of specific policies, everyone in higher education wants to tackle the crises of affordability, access, and debt. We all want to figure out how the nation can invest in community colleges and other public institutions. The US higher education sector remains the envy of the world, with students from every country wanting to come to the US for undergraduate and graduate training.
The four horsemen of pandemic, anti-immigration policies, public disinvestment, and shifting demographics are combining to cause unprecedented challenges across the entire higher education sector. At no time have so many colleges and universities been so economically vulnerable, while the need for high-quality and affordable higher education options for students has been so acute. We need an Education Department that understands the essential role that higher education plays in our nation’s economic and social well-being. We need an Education Department committed to doing whatever it takes so that everyone can attend and graduate college without incurring crippling debt and can get a decent job upon graduation.
The Education Department will play a critical role in determining where higher education will go in the next few years. We need to find a way to rebuild the relationships and the trust that ED had cultivated with colleges and universities in the Obama administration – with admittedly many strong disagreements on specific policies – under the incoming Biden administration. COVID-19 has made the building of strong collaboration and cooperation between universities and ED more essential than ever.