Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Biden's reboot of US higher education policy - possibilities and probabilities

By John Aubrey Douglass

Heading photo

Biden’s election will fundamentally alter the destructive higher education policies pursued over the last four years under Donald Trump. The Trump administration pursued increasingly restrictive visa policies, dampening the ability and interest of international talent to come to American universities, repeatedly proposed large scale cuts in student financial aid as well as funding for science, invoked anti-immigrant policies that affected students, and reduced restriction on largely predatory for-profit tertiary businesses.

Perhaps most damaging, Trump persistently denied the realities of climate change and initialed labeled the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax and claimed that the science community, including those in universities, as hopelessly politically biased. A substantial portion of the American public seems to believe him.

Globally, and in much of the United States, Biden’s election has brought a huge sense of relief – the seeming near end of an anti-globalist and chaotic administration led by a demagogue who found political success by generated division and rancor. A Biden-Harris administration will make a sharp turn toward a more progressive higher education policy agenda.

Most of Trump’s regressive policies can be reversed or altered. The portrayal of science and academic research as “fake news,” and the effort to discredit public institutions, including federal science agencies that are supposed to be non-political, will have a much longer and more problematic impact.

Two Categories of Initiatives

Biden’s election promises to boost college-going rates and re-invest in public tertiary institutions fall into two general categories: policies and actions that can be taken by the president via his administration and through presidential executive orders, and those that will require legislative action by Congress.

The scope of Biden’s higher education agenda will also depend on the cost of proposed programs and the political composition of the US Senate which may remain in control of Republicans.  This makes it very unlikely that the Biden administration will be able to enact and fund some of its more progressive proposals.

When he officially takes office in late January, and in the short-term constrained by the path of the pandemic, he will probably act to make visa policies for international students and for attracting academic talent much less restrictive. This fits into a larger understanding of the US’s role in international affairs.

Biden intends to rebuild international relations and, on the first day of his presidency, rejoin the World Health Organization, re-enter the Paris Climate Accords, outline plans that strengthen NATO, and revisit the Iran nuclear deal.

His effort to re-enter the global community will also include reversing the so-called “Muslim Ban” that included students from a designated group of largely Muslim countries, reinstating the DREAMers program allowing children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S., and revise Trump era rules that made it increasingly difficult for international students to study and then work in the United States. For students considering a degree abroad, 62% mentioned that being able to work in the country following the degree is very important, according to a survey of international students by Studyportals.

“Foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree,” Biden’s campaign platform states. “Losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), has written on behalf of 43 US university associations calling on the Biden administration to ensure that American colleges and universities are “once again, the destination of choice for the world’s best international students and scholars.”

Among the actions recommended by ACE related to international students, faculty and researchers: withdraw the proposed regulations that would limit an international student’s ‘duration of status’ -- the period they can study in the US; withdraw the interim final rules and the proposed rule that make it harder and more expensive for individuals to receive H-1B visas; and to make clear that the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program remains in place as it was at the end of the Obama administration.

If there are significant advances with a vaccine, and therapies and a more cooperative American population in following basic health rules to limit the pandemic, the declines in international students and hiring talent from throughout the world, will likely be reversed.

Yet there will remain market disadvantages for US universities and colleges in attracting students, including not only the negative legacy of Trump’s policies, but also relatively high tuition rates, particularly at name-brand universities, and global competition from non-US universities that are improving steadily in quality and ability to attract international talent – usually backed by their national and regional governments.

Free Tuition and More?

Like the previous Obama-Biden administration, the new administration will place a heavy emphasis on federal support for Community Colleges – two-year institutions that offer associate of art degrees that then allow a student to transfer to a four-year institution, as well as vocational and adult education courses and certificates.

Biden promises to provide federal funding to states to provide “two years of community college or other high-quality training programs without debt for any hard-working individual looking to learn and improve their skills to keep up with the changing nature of work.”

There is also the promise of additional funding for programs intended to improve student progress towards a degree or certificate, and expanding student financial aid to help them cover expenses beyond tuition and fees. And Biden proposes a $50 billion investment in workforce training, including community-college business partnerships and apprenticeships.

Reflecting promises of rivals in the earlier Democratic primary election, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden also wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000. And there are plans to double the maximum value of Pell grants given to low income students to subsidize tuition and housing costs. In the 1970s, Pell grants covered roughly 70 to 80 percent of the cost of a four-year degree at a public institution; today, that percentage has been cut in more than half, to roughly 30 percent .

Student debt in the US is a major problem, driving in large part by the for-profit sector, students enrolled in high cost professional fields, like medicine, and a steady and large scale decline in state funding for public tertiary institutions forcing them to steadily increase tuition.

Biden has proposed federal student loan forgiveness up to $10,000 for every year of national or community service, up to five years. He also seeks to limit monthly payments to 5% of discretionary income. What might remain of the loan would be foregiven after 20 years of payments. And a Biden administration will consider a path for some students with large amounts of student debt to file for bankruptcy.

Both the free tuition and debt relief proposals are substantially smaller initiatives then the campaign proposals of other Democrats that ran for president in the primary. Why pursue a more moderate path? One reason is the cost, as noted. But equally important is the fact that a broad student debt relief program would disproportionately benefit upper income former students -- half of all student debt is for those who pursued graduate education, and largely with degrees in professional fields. A blanket promise of free tuition programs at four year colleges and universities also offers a disproportional benefit to upper income students and their families.

Even then, Biden’s more targeted initiatives for free higher education would require a massive increase in the federal involvement and regulatory controls on public higher education – historically the purview of states. They also require increased investment by states to partially match federal funding, monies states simply do not have now or probably in the near future.

One recent study estimates that the free college plan alone would cost $49.6 billion in the first year, with $33.1 billion covered by the federal government and $16.5 billion by the states. Over 10 years, it would cost the federal government and states $683.1 billion.

Two COVID Realities

Hanging over all of these policy initiatives and plans is the impact of COVID-19. The first reality are declines in enrollment largely at the undergraduate level, and particularly among first year as well as international students.

Roughly one month into the fall 2020 semester, and according to the latest data by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center , undergraduate enrollment is now running 4.4% below last year’s level, while graduate enrollment is up 2.9% reflecting demand for job preparation in the midst of rising unemployment.

First year freshman students experienced the biggest decline of any group, at 14.9% nationally. Community college enrollment dropped 18.9%. Visa restrictions and concern regarding the US handling of the pandemic has contributed to a 14.9% decrease in international students at the undergraduate level, and 7.8 percent at the graduate level.

At the same time, the rapid movement to on-line courses is not only causing strains for faculty and students; it is also resulting in students delaying their enrollment and, particularly at two-year institutions, and increased attrition rates among enrolled students.

The second reality is enrollment declines mean significant declines in tuition income. Coupled with a general and large decline in state and local government tax revenues – the primary source of funding for public universities and colleges – many institutions are entering extremely difficult budgetary waters.

The financial impact includes large scale layoffs of faculty and staff and the likelihood of a large number of small private institutions closing or having to merge with larger institutions. We are at the edge of a major transition in the composition of America’s higher education system .

The Big Variable

With the approach of a new Biden-Harris administration, the big variable is if a second and large federal stimulus program will include funding for state and local governments. Without it, the US will face large scale layoffs of public servants like teachers and police, and additional cuts to public services and institutions, including higher education. It will mean ballooning unemployment levels.

The Democratically controlled House of Representatives has proposed a federal stimulus bill that includes funding for states. The problems is that Republicans still control the Senate, as of this writing, and may into 2021. Thus far, they have blocked a second stimulus bill of sufficient scale to get the nation through the next phase of a growing pandemic in the US and support state and local governments.

Even if Democrats eventually control the Senate (seemingly unlikely at the moment with two run-off elections in January), the free tuition proposals will probably meet stiff opposition. The cost is large and the mechanisms to reach agreements with states to fund and implement difficult (tuition rates very among public colleges and universities).

Democratic Senators in states so-called “purple states” (states that are populated by roughly equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters) will likely join Republicans in opposing large scale funding schemes on fiscal grounds. In this scenario, expect Biden increasingly to use executive orders.

Advocates of federally funded free public higher education argue that the $683.1 billion cost over ten years will pay for itself in taxes and meeting future labor needs with rather overly optimistic estimates of enrollment and degree completion. Others note that the federal government could largely achieve the similar results by big increases in financial aid, like a doubling of Pell grants. The more likely path is not to make higher education tuition free, but to make it more accessible and more affordable.

There are also questions regarding a major disruption for non-profit colleges and universities. The non-brand name institutions, many small liberal arts colleges, will likely see their market collapse for middle- and lower-income students who find a much cheaper path in the publics. Many smaller colleges, part of the hallmark of America’s network of institutions, are already in dire financial troubles. One might argue that any free public higher education plans would simply accelerate the inevitable.

A Message

In the likelihood that the free tuition schemes offered by Biden during the campaign do not come to fruition, the US will still have a new president and administration that understands the key role of higher education in economic development and socio-economic mobility. Policies and programs, and funding, will hopefully follow. It’s a welcome message for the vast network of colleges and universities, for students and the academic research community.

Just as importantly, Biden’s ascent is a message to the world that the US once again seeks cooperation and engagement with the international community, including providing a welcoming place for talent.

Again, the path of the pandemic hangs over all predictions of the future. Higher education’s new normal may well mean more on-line coursework and degrees, and a reorganization of international networks of academics and students. But there is also the specter of a  form of stability by fall 2021, if therapies, testing and vaccines severely mitigate the pandemic. Biden Harris

The combination of Biden’s election and administration, and virus mitigation, could soften the economic blow of the pandemic, and signal to international talent that the US is again a welcoming place to study and learn. And if there is a return to a new-normal by fall 2021, there are strong indicators of bent up demand for higher education among domestic and international students.

Indeed, the rapid expansion of on-line courses and degree programs, and the re-opening of college and university campuses, may result in a largely unexpected major revitalization of most, but not all, sectors of US higher education.  Under the positive scenario, the big variable, as noted, will be the severity of additional funding cuts and the capacity of colleges and universities to do its own reboot to meet demand.

Copyright 2020 John Aubrey Douglass and Richard Edelstein, all rights reserved.


John Aubrey Douglass is Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor - Public Policy and Higher Education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California - Berkeley.  He is the author of Neo-Nationalism and Universities (forthcoming Johns Hopkins University Press). Richard J. Edelstein is a Senior Research Associate at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. A version of this blog was published in University World News on November 25, 2020.