What If Biden Wins?

Five planks.

September 29, 2020

If Joe Biden wins his quest for the presidency, what are the implications for American higher education? As I noted in an essay last week, President Trump’s official second-term agenda devotes only 11 total words to K-12 and higher education combined. In contrast, Biden has released a detailed Plan for Education Beyond High School, with additional details laid out in his Unity Task Force policy brief, which was crafted by a joint working group of Biden and Bernie Sanders advisers.

Having spent time as the deputy policy director on a successful presidential campaign (for Bill Clinton way back in 1992) and then watched efforts to implement that campaign’s agenda once the president was in office, I can tell you firsthand that there is often a giant gap between a candidate’s proposals while running and the policies he or she actually advances once in office. Nevertheless, campaign plans offer a valuable insight into a candidate’s mind-set and values. They also reflect political reality: the goals, needs and desires of his political supporters. While we can’t take for granted that Biden’s current proposals will find their way into his budget and legislative agenda should he win in November, they are a good guide, I think, to his inclinations, goals and perspective.

The most important takeaway is that Biden, if he wins, is likely to invest heavily in higher education. Unlike Trump, who has been deeply antagonistic toward the sector, Biden sees higher education as vital to economic opportunity, job creation, and a thriving democracy. So, what would Biden do? His plan has five main pillars:

Investing in Community Colleges

Biden has long been a champion of the nation’s community colleges, perhaps in part because his wife, Jill Biden, is a former community college professor. Biden has vowed “to ensure that every hard-working individual, including those attending school part-time and DREAMers (young adults who came to U.S. as children), can go to community college for up to two years without having to pay tuition. This plan will be a federal-state partnership, with the federal government covering 75 percent of the cost and states contributing the remaining obligation.” Significantly, Biden has vowed that support for community college students will go well beyond tuition assistance. His plan explains:

There are too many Americans who don’t complete their education or training programs not because of a lack of will, but because of other responsibilities they are juggling, such as a job to pay their bills or caring for children. Often these students and their families also face housing and food insecurity. The Biden Administration’s community college initiative will be a first-dollar program, meaning that students will be able to use their Pell grants, state aid, and other aid to help them cover expenses beyond tuition and fees. And, Biden will establish a federal grant program to help community colleges create emergency grant programs for students who experience an unexpected financial challenge that threatens their ability to stay enrolled.

Biden has also proposed to “invest $8 billion to help community colleges improve the health and safety of their facilities, and equip their schools with new technology that will empower their students to succeed in the 21st century,” plus another $50 billion for workforce training programs at community colleges and other institutions.

In sum, expect major focus on this vital sector of America’s higher education system. The details and dollar amounts may shift, but given his track record and his wife’s deep commitment -- she has indicated she will continue to teach as first lady -- help for community colleges is likely on the way if Biden wins.

Making College More Affordable

Biden has also committed to making a four-year college education more affordable. The big news: his campaign agenda states his support for “Senator Sanders’ proposal to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all students whose family incomes are below $125,000.” The Biden campaign agenda does not explain clearly how he will accomplish this goal -- is he adopting all the details of the Sanders plan? -- but does endorse two important affordability tools: a “doubling” of the Pell Grant and a “Title I for postsecondary education to help students at under-resourced four-year schools complete their degrees,” with assistance “for under-resourced four-year schools that serve large numbers of Pell-eligible students.”

Debt Forgiveness

Biden has endorsed a number of important debt forgiveness and debt limitation ideas in response to America’s $1.6 trillion college debt crisis, including: (1) up to $10,000 in temporary student debt relief per borrower to help respond to COVID-19 economic dislocation; (2) a moratorium on interest accrual “on federal student loans for people earning less than $25,000”; (3) limiting debt payments to “no more than 5 percent of discretionary income for those earning more than $25,000”; and (4) automatic loan forgiveness after 20 years. The details, here, are probably not that important, since any plan will be subject to the push and pull of the legislative process if he is elected. What is significant is the commitment to do something to respond to the shadow of debt that hangs over many younger Americans.

A Crackdown on Exploitative For-Profit Colleges

The Trump administration repealed Obama-era rules designed to protect students from exploitative for-profit colleges. Expect Biden to reverse that, and perhaps take additional steps, to crack down on for-profits with bad job placement or debt repayment records. The Biden plans explains:

Students who started their education at for-profit colleges default on their student loans at a rate three times higher than those who start at nonprofit colleges. These for-profit programs are often predatory -- devoted to high-pressure and misleading recruiting practices and charging higher costs for lower quality education that leaves graduates with mountains of debt and without good job opportunities. The Biden Administration will require for-profits to first prove their value to the U.S. Department of Education before gaining eligibility for federal aid. The Biden Administration will also return to the Obama-Biden Borrower’s Defense Rule, forgiving the debt held by individuals who were deceived by the worst for-profit college or career profiteers. Finally, President Biden will enact legislation eliminating the so-called 90/10 loophole that gives for-profit schools an incentive to enroll veterans and service members in programs that aren’t delivering results.

Support for HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and HSIs

Finally, Biden has committed to invest $70 billion in historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other schools serving traditionally underserved communities. The current Biden proposal is to split that assistance four ways: (1) $10 billion to support persistence, success and graduation efforts; (2) $20 billion for infrastructure and science labs; (3) $10 billion for research and job-incubation Centers of Excellence; and (4) $18 billion plus “additional funds” for student tuition assistance.

The Takeaway

Biden has laid out a comprehensive, bold and really expensive plan to boost higher education. The plan is also pretty traditional. Though it contains occasional references to cost containment, there is not much here about transformation or disruption. Instead, Biden is trying to subsidize and improve the system that currently exists. Think reform, not revolution.

If he is elected, I would expect a serious push to make some, perhaps most, of this agenda a reality. Earlier this year, Congress tried and failed to re-authorize the Higher Education Act. The relevant education committees will return to this effort early next year. This will provide Biden, if elected, a vehicle to move forward a very big part of his higher education agenda.

The real challenge will be funding. Under Trump, the federal deficit has exploded to an astounding $3.3 trillion due to tax cuts, spending increases and the COVID-19 response. Some fiscal conservatives -- Republicans in Congress, but perhaps some leaders within a Biden administration as well -- might try to block new initiatives in the name of “fiscal sanity.” They will note that the national debt is now more than $20 trillion, a mind-boggling figure that now exceeds our GDP. The big question is: If Biden is elected, will he be able to move this aggressive higher education agenda forward, or will it get stuck in Congress? Stay tuned.


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