After four years of an administration broadly disinterested in cooperating with US higher education, the thought of an incoming Biden administration will be a breath of fresh air for those in America’s higher education sector.
Trump’s legacy in the sector is likely to be one of intolerance and a lack of cooperation. He is the first presidential candidate to ever be warned against in scientific journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and his government even faced lawsuits from some of the country’s most prominent and prestigious institutions after he tried to place a ban on international students staying in the country during COVID.
Joe Biden, however, has made several pledges related to higher education key cornerstones of his platform, suggesting that the sector is likely to benefit from a president who understands the significant role it plays, both in educating America’s population, and in cementing the country’s place on the world stage.
Worth noting also is the incoming first lady’s position as an educator herself - Dr Jill Biden is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, and is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job whilst her husband was vice president. She is also expected to be the first ever first lady to continue working whilst her husband is president when she starts her role in January. It is likely that, as first lady, she will play some role in Biden’s higher education reforms, especially those surrounding community colleges.
So what can the sector expect to see from the Biden administration? Here are some of the key points.
Greater investment in community colleges
America has a fairly complex higher education system, with public, private, and community colleges all valid routes to gaining a degree. Community colleges in the US usually offer two-year programmes that then allow graduates to transfer to a university to complete an undergraduate degree, although some do offer four-year degrees.
Community colleges are a more cost-effective way for many Americans to complete the first two years of their four-year degree, and are often more accessible than expensive private colleges. Biden has pledged to provide two years of community college debt free to all Americans. The move is likely to make higher education more accessible - if Biden can get it through congress.
The president does not have the power to decide how federal money is spent, so any decision to give greater funding to community colleges must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate - only the former of which the Democrats control right now. The numbers in the Senate are close, so if Biden can get a few Republicans on his side he might be able to make this policy a reality, but it’s an unlikely prospect. More realistic is the idea that he may have to wait and see if the Democrats can regain control of the Senate in the midterm elections before implementing any kind of dramatic fiscal policies in the higher education sector.
Free tuition for students from low-income families
Biden has pledged to make all public college and universities tuition-free for students who have a family income of under $125,000. That’s a pretty generous policy, but one that could end up paying for itself in ten years, according to a Georgetown University study.
The incentive is to tackle America’s huge student debt crisis, which disproportionately affects black Americans and poses a huge challenge to millenials, who have had little luck with the economy since graduating college.
However, the policy is once again subject to the approval of congress, meaning that it’s unlikely to be an immediate change. Speaking to Times Higher Education Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University who advised the Biden campaign, said that the policy could pass through congress, but only if Biden was willing to offer significant returns for the Republicans.
“Everybody has a price, I just don’t know where that lies on the hierarchy of priorities.”
Support colleges that play vital roles in their communities
With this policy, Biden is really talking about a number of minority-serving institutions in the US, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and predominantly black institutions (PBIs).
His running mate, and now the first ever female and black vice president-elect Kamala Harris, attended Howard University, a HBCU. It’s too early to tell what her priorities will be whilst in office, but it’s likely that she’ll be keen to ensure that minority-serving colleges are a priority of the administration’s higher education policy.
Biden has pledged to invest $18 billion in grants to these institutions with the hope that schools will lower costs, improve retention and graduation rates, and close equity gaps for students of colour. However, once again, the president has very limited powers when it comes to fiscal policy. He’ll need to persuade congress that this is a valuable use of federal government money before he can fulfill this promise.
Visas and immigration
Biden has yet to outline any clear plan for international students in the US, but what’s clear is that he’ll take a vastly different approach to Trump on the issues of student visas and immigration.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration tried to ban international students from staying in the US if the majority of their classes were conducted online during the pandemic. On the (virtual) campaign trail at the time, Biden tweeted: “Across the world, people come to this country with unrelenting optimism and determination toward the future. They study here, innovate here, they make America who we are. Donald Trump doesn't get that — we need a president who does”.
Furthermore, vice president-elect Harris’ parents were international students themselves, who met in the US and then built their lives there. This personal connection suggests that international students are likely to see their value recognised much more in the incoming administration, than over the last four years.