Lots of Hope, No Guarantees

The capture of the Senate by Democrats increases chances Congress will take up college affordability proposals, but it's unclear how far they will go.

January 8, 2021
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
The victories of Georgia's new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff (L) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (R), will make it easier for President-elect Joe Biden to pass his agenda.

The Democratic capture of the Senate, after sweeping two runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday, increases the chances that Congress will take up the incoming Biden administration’s proposals to lower the cost of attending college, particularly increasing the maximum size of Pell Grants.

But with Democrats holding only the barest of majorities in the Senate -- with incoming vice president Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie in the chamber -- it is unclear how far they will go on issues like eliminating tuition or canceling student debts, say higher education advocates.

Winning control after maintaining a slim majority in the House in November “will change everything,” said Terry Hartle, higher education’s senior lobbyist as the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations. “​​But it will guarantee nothing.”

For the new Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, to shepherd anything through the body, he will not be able to lose the support of any single Democrat in an ideologically diverse caucus that ranges from progressives like Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren to moderates like Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, or Jon Tester, of Montana.

Controlling the Senate does mean Senator Patty Murray, a Washington State Democrat, will chair the education committee and set the agenda on higher education issues. The majority will also mean President-elect Joe Biden will have an easier time getting his cabinet members confirmed, including his nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, Hartle said.

Still, he said, “Democrats do not have a working majority in the Senate. They cannot proceed unless everyone in the caucus, from Joe Manchin to Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders, agree. Any single Democratic objection would be a problem.”

Schumer, of New York, will have to find a “balance,” said Beth Stein, senior adviser to the left-leaning Institute for College Access & Success and a former Democratic counsel on the Senate education committee.

That could weaken Biden’s proposals, like eliminating tuition for all students at community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities, as well as for students at public higher education institutions whose families make less than $125,000.

A number of complex policy questions still need to be ironed out that could lead to at least one senator opposing any proposal, Hartle said. As laid out by Biden during the campaign, the plan would involve the federal government helping states pay for eliminating tuition at their colleges -- a change from the current education funding system, which issues funds directly to institutions and students. The plan has also been criticized for sending more federal dollars to states like Vermont that now spend less on higher education and less to those like North Carolina that spend more.

Georgetown University researchers estimate the proposal would cost $683 billion over 11 years. However, over that time, the researchers argued, more students would get college degrees with higher-paying jobs, and the increase in taxes they'd pay would pay for the program. States would be expected to chip in a third of the cost at a time when many states are cutting budgets in the midst of the pandemic. At least initially, the federal government might have to shoulder more of the cost, Stein said.

Eliminating tuition likely would not have been considered by the Senate had Republicans maintained control, said Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College. A senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, he was a senior policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore.

Biden free tuition proposal will likely be considered by the Democratic Senate. But moderate Democrats might balk at the cost of making both two- and four-year colleges free, Winograd said. The Democratic majority “doesn't necessarily mean it’s going to pass, and if something passes, it doesn’t mean the Biden plan will pass,” he said. Instead, Congress might stop short of going as far as Biden, or his group, wants, Winograd said.

“Given the number of moderates on the Democratic side, there could potentially be some kind of down payment on free college,” he said.

Making only community colleges free would be cheaper than eliminating tuition at four-year colleges, he said. A compromise to address concerns from moderates over the cost could also mean only making the first two years of colleges, including at four-year institutions, free, he said.

There would be widespread, even bipartisan support, for eliminating tuition for community colleges or, instead, dealing with affordability by increasing the maximum size of Pell Grants from the current $6,495 after it got a $150 boost last month, Stein said.

Jenna Sablan, senior policy analyst for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said Democrats could also lower the price tag of the free college plan by limiting it only to certain students.

“We tend to think of free college only in terms of the ways that Sanders or Warren proposed it, and how Biden adopted it in the campaign -- free community college for all and free four-years for students from family incomes under $125,000. But there are lots of different ways to structure free college and target it to address moderates’ concerns -- [you could] use income caps,” she said.

“These cut costs, but also come with equity tradeoffs. Focusing on first-time full-time students, of course, would ignore the growing adult student population and disproportionately leave out low-income students, students of color and student parents, for example,” she said.

And that’s only if only 50 votes and Harris's tiebreaker are needed to pass any free college plan. Complicating the prospects of eliminating tuition is that Republicans are able to filibuster bills, under a requirement for 60 votes to consider bills. A range of progressive groups have pushed for the Senate to eliminate the filibuster, but it doesn’t appear to have enough support among Senate Democrats.

Instead, Stein expects Democrats to use a budget procedure called reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes for bills to pass, to deal with such issues as free college. But Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the procedure can only be used for strictly budgetary measures and cannot be used to create new policies like a free college plan. Increasing funding for Pell Grants, on the other hand, would be something that could be passed with 50 votes, he said.

It would be difficult to get 60 votes for Biden’s free college plan, he said. Republicans have a number of concerns, including the cost. Outgoing education secretary Betsy DeVos has warned that colleges would be underfunded if they are reliant on government money and urged Congress in a letter last week not to adopt the plan. Hess said also that Republicans would be concerned making public colleges free would give them an advantage over private institutions, including religious colleges and universities.

It’s unclear as well if moderate Democrats would go as far in canceling student debt as Biden has proposed. He has proposed to eliminate $10,000 from all borrowers’ debt during the pandemic, as well as the debt accumulated to pay tuition for those making $125,000 or less.

"A lot of members of Congress are silent on that," Wesley Whistle, New America’s senior adviser for education policy and strategy, said of the proposal. “I don’t know if it’s possible. There are a lot of moderate members.” Democrats running in key Senate elections in swing states this year shied away from talking about canceling debt, except for Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, who said he’d support a “generous forgiveness program for those struggling to pay off their student loans.”

Debt cancellation advocates, though, are more optimistic. They take heart that Schumer's public support for debt cancellation means it could get through the Senate. “We are optimistic that backing from Leader Schumer will help unify the party on the issue of student debt, and we will work to persuade lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to address this growing problem,” said Cody Hounanian, program director at Student Debt Crisis.

However, the group and others acknowledge that getting Congress to approve widespread debt cancellation is no sure thing, and they are pushing Biden to cancel debt by executive order upon taking office. “The COVID pandemic is an urgent economic crisis, and there may be unique challenges to passing student debt cancellation in Congress fast enough to provide the immediate relief millions of people need right now,” Hounanian said.

Biden, though, told a group of newspaper columnists Dec. 23 he probably will not unilaterally cancel debt. “It’s arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt,” Biden said, according to The Washington Post. “Well, I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”

That brought angry protests from cancellation advocates, who are continuing to press Biden to act.

“Congress has already shown that it cannot be relied upon to help student borrowers. Now is the moment for President-elect Biden to show that he will make good on his promises and provide relief to struggling borrowers on day one,” said Ashley Harrington, the Center for Responsible Lending’s director of federal advocacy.

The Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate “makes Joe Manchin the most powerful guy in Washington,” Hess said. Congress could pass some form of debt cancellation, “but it will be a Manchin [form of] loan forgiveness. It won’t be a Sanders form of loan forgiveness.”

A Manchin spokeswoman was unavailable for comment. Manchin hasn’t publicly spoken about canceling debt, but in 2017 he sponsored a bill to simplify the multitude of loan repayment options to two: a fixed repayment plan, based on a 10-year period, and a single, simplified income-driven repayment option. Manchin also sponsored a 2013 bill that lowered the interest rate on student loans.

More likely to happen, Stein said, is that Congress will approve additional coronavirus relief after Democrats described the $900 billion coronavirus-relief package passed last month, including $23 billion for colleges and universities, as a stopgap measure until Biden takes office. A particular priority, Stein said, is to give colleges more aid to pay for costs like personal protective equipment and testing, as well as to help struggling students.

”The pandemic is the No. 1 issue going out the door. Education is in for some serious challenges in terms of reopening K-12 and on the college side. Whether we can reopen, how we can reopen is the No. 1 priority,” Stein said.

More clear than free college or debt cancellation as well, she said, is that the Democratic majority will change DeVos’s regulations that made it harder for students who were defrauded, particularly by for-profit colleges, to have their debt canceled, as well as rules that barred for-profits from being eligible to get federal student aid dollars if their graduates do not get well-paying jobs, and that increased the rights of those accused of sexual harassment or assault on campuses. Biden’s Education Department is expected to undo those regulations, but Stein said lawmakers may want to put them into law to make it harder for the policies to shift back and forth as administrations change.


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