GW Experts Weigh In on What Biden’s Win Means for Higher Ed

President-elect Joe Biden’s higher education plan includes the possibility of free community college, student loan forgiveness and expanded access to opportunities beyond high school.

November 30, 2020

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By Tatyana Hopkins

President-elect Joe Biden’s upcoming administration could pave a way for shifts in higher education policies, said Michael Feuer, dean of the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development and professor of education policy.

Dr. Feuer said Mr. Biden is likely to spend the early days of his presidency addressing issues of higher education accessibility, student loan debt and reversing Trump-era policies.

“Especially with uncertainty about leadership in the Senate, it is likely that the Biden administration will focus, at least in the short run, on reversing some executive orders from the Trump/DeVos years, such as their decision to rescind “gainful employment” regulations holding for-profit colleges accountable,” he said. “I would not be surprised if President Biden also reverses the DeVos ban on racial sensitivity training,” Dr. Feuer added optimistically.

Higher education groups are also calling for the new administration to remove President Donald Trump’s Title IX reform, which mandates live hearings for cross-examination in cases of on-campus sexual assault. They have also called for Mr. Biden to re-instate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to shield young immigrants working and in school from deportation.

Additionally, Dr. Feuer said that in the first 100 days of his presidency, Mr. Biden is most likely to take quick action on reaffirming the value of scientific research generally and funding for key areas such as COVID-19 treatment and prevention.

In the long term, Mr. Biden’s plan for higher education provides for loan forgiveness and more money for low-income students to pay for college through expansion of the Pell Grant program. It also calls for new partnerships with the business community to foster college-to-work programs.

Ashley Stone, director of GW’s higher education administration program, said the incoming administration’s diverse experiences with education will likely influence their policy in the area.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will become the first HBCU graduate in the White House, and incoming first lady Jill Biden is a community college professor.

“Dr. Jill Biden is not only a community college professor, but her doctorate is in educational leadership and her dissertation focused on retention at community colleges,” Dr. Stone said. “Her passion for and commitment to community colleges is already evident in Mr. Biden’s plan.”

Further, she said the Biden administration will likely attempt to tackle student loan debt. She noted that Mr. Biden’s campaign plan details not only helping those who are currently struggling with student loan debt but also making payment plans more manageable for borrowers and reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Under Mr. Biden’s plan, those earning $25,000 or less per year would not owe any payments on their undergraduate federal student loans and will not accrue interest on those loans. Further, the plan waives $10,000 per year, for up to five years, for those in public service jobs.

“This approach, particularly reform to make the student loan forgiveness for public servants easier to access, is in stark contrast to the Trump administration, which made repeated calls to end the program,” Dr. Stone said.

However, she said debt cancellation could face challenges from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. While she said pushback is expected from Republican legislators, Dr. Stone said Democrats may fight for more progressive options for student debt cancellation.

In addition to student loan debt, Dwayne Wright, GSEHD’s interim director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, said the Biden administration is also concerned with providing affordable educational opportunities beyond high school that will help Americans meet the needs of the evolving economy.

“The focus is clearly on making college more affordable for more people,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s proposals would eliminate tuition for all students at community colleges and for families earning less than $125,000 at four-year public colleges and universities.

However, Dr. Wright said this approach stands “in contrast” to efforts to make college free, which some of Mr. Biden’s Democratic primary opponents supported.

“‘Tuition free’ or ‘debt free’ college is not the same thing as having a completely free, four-year college option,” Dr. Wright said.

He noted that many of the Biden campaign’s affordability proposals would be “first-dollar” programs, meaning approved students could see their public college tuition covered by the government and then would be able to use any excess financial aid to cover other costs, such as textbooks, housing and meal plans.

Further, Dr. Wright said Mr. Biden’s plan to help American families meet the rising cost of college is likely to change form in the political process.

“It is likely that President-elect Biden will have a slight Democratic majority in the House and a Republican Senate,” Dr. Wright said. “In our polarized political atmosphere that alone would prove difficult to manage. When you add the cost of the proposed programs, $750 billion over 10 years, according to the Biden campaign, I think he faces an uphill battle, and it is likely that whatever gets passed will look significantly different from what has been outlined in the plan.”