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Here’s What the Midterms Mean for Higher Education

Opportunities for the Biden administration and college leaders.

November 16, 2022

The midterm elections are finally over. It’s increasingly clear that Democrats will control the Senate while Republicans will control the House. While Democrats outperformed expectations, the next Congress will be less supportive of President Biden’s legislative agenda. This has significant consequences for higher education policy. Understanding these consequences can help college leaders prepare for the next two years.

Since coming to office, the Biden administration has made substantial progress helping students and institutions recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration passed the American Rescue Plan, which provided nearly $40 billion to institutions to help serve students’ needs, and launched a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which could significantly reduce food insecurity across college campuses. These actions, coupled with the administration’s decision to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of borrowers, demonstrated a commitment to advancing large-scale, federal solutions to higher education’s biggest problems.

But the Biden administration’s efforts to help students and institutions are incomplete. The administration was unable to make community college tuition-free nationwide, a key policy of Biden’s presidential campaign. And while the Biden administration passed policies that will help students afford their basic needs, basic needs insecurity continues to threaten the academic and mental well-being of an alarming number of college students. Likewise, the Biden administration provided colleges with necessary resources to weather the pandemic, but amid continued enrollment declines, many colleges—especially community colleges—are in greater need of federal resources than ever before.

To address the most pressing issues in higher education—like the college affordability crisis, increased student basic needs insecurity and steep drops in college enrollment—Congress needs to pass additional legislation. However, the higher education field cannot count on a newly divided Congress to pass legislation that is capable of meeting this moment. Democrats and Republicans disagree on whether the government should provide increased funding to colleges, as most Republicans believe students—rather than the federal government—should fund their own paths to college. Even if Congress finds bipartisan agreement on some issues relating to higher education, it’s unlikely Congress will provide colleges with additional resources to navigate the steep challenges they face.

Despite this, there are silver linings to this year’s midterm elections. First, the Biden administration can utilize the power of the executive branch to help students afford their basic needs without having to rely on Congress. By reviewing and reforming regulations across the Department of Housing and Urban Development, SNAP, the Department of Transportation and Medicaid, the Biden administration can advance numerous policies that can help students meet their basic needs. If the administration lowers students’ food, housing, transportation and health care costs, they can positively impact higher education without passing legislation.

Second, there were positive results for higher education at the state and local level. Democrats won important governor’s elections and took control in critical swing state legislatures. These outcomes could create opportunities to advance higher education policies at the state level. This is particularly promising given the increase in recent state policies that have made community college tuition-free for millions of Americans. Because of this, states now have blueprints to pass bipartisan bills that can lower the cost of college, which is a promising way to advance educational equity and economic mobility.

In light of the new federal policy landscape, two key lessons emerge for college leaders:

Advocate for Policy Change at the State and Local Level

Given the success of recent state policies that lower the cost of college, as well as the new federal and state policy landscapes, higher education leaders should advocate for policies that will advance educational equity and economic mobility at the state and local level. College leaders can learn from bipartisan efforts to make college more affordable in Michigan to inform their own advocacy. Given the midterm results, there is both greater need, and opportunity, to advance change at the state and local levels, and college leaders should capitalize on this.

Connect Programs to Workforce Needs

Despite likely congressional gridlock, there is bipartisan support for college programs that address workforce needs. The renewed focus on labor shortages since the start of COVID-19 has increased support for workforce development initiatives. While higher education does far more than just addressing labor shortages, college leaders can take advantage of bipartisan support for workforce development and training initiatives by highlighting the workforce benefits of their programs. In doing so, college leaders can garner political support for their work, which could help advance needed higher education policies.

While the midterms may lead to congressional gridlock, there are opportunities to advance equity in higher education through state, local and executive action. College leaders can—and should—play an important role in making these opportunities reality.

Chris Geary is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Education & Labor at New America, where he focuses on the intersection of higher education and labor policy. Previously, Chris was a policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, a policy fellow in the mayor’s office in New Orleans and a public school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisggeary.

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