Biden Administration Will Take Decisively Different Approach to Higher Education
November 09, 2020

On the agenda: Doubling Pell Grants, student loan forgiveness, reinstating DACA, more

ACE President Ted Mitchell issued a statement Saturday congratulating President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and pledging that the higher education community would work with the incoming administration on key issues such as expanding equitable access to educational opportunity and increasing levels of attainment, as well on as a “daunting list of challenges” including the COVID-19 pandemic.

There seems to be general agreement that getting a handle on the pandemic and the economic devastation left in its wake should be the first order of business.

Mitchell expressed hope that the current Congress will “finalize and approve a comprehensive COVID relief package that includes at least $120 billion in financial assistance for students and colleges and universities facing an existential crisis” before adjourning.  

“If that does not occur, we hope that the Biden administration and the new Congress will make doing so the top priority in January,” he said.

What is the Biden platform for higher education?

The Biden-Harris platform unveiled during the campaign suggests that higher education will be a primary focus of the new administration.

On federal student aid policy, the Biden administration proposes doubling Pell Grants and indexing the program to inflation, as well as making Dreamers and incarcerated individuals eligible for financial aid. One of the highest-profile proposals in the platform is to make public college free for families with an income below $125,000, along the lines of recent congressional proposals.

On student loans, the proposals cover a wide range of initiatives to provide loan forgiveness, streamline and the repayment process, and allow for the discharge of private loans through bankruptcy. Biden also has pledge to secure passage of the What You Can Do for Your Country Act of 2019, a bill introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) that would expand eligibility and qualifying payments for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

Also on tap are proposed massive new federal investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority serving institutions, as well as a significant expansion of support for community colleges.

“President-elect Biden has promised to make human capital investment a central part of his agenda and this will have widespread implications for higher education. Higher education institutions and student will welcome these efforts," ACE’s Terry Hartle told Inside Higher Ed over the weekend. “Some of his ideas, like doubling Pell Grants, are easily implemented and will enjoy universal popularity. Others—like the free college proposal—will be politically controversial and very complicated to design. Yet others—like large-scale student loan forgiveness—are potentially quite expensive. But we’ll be looking at a once-in-a-generation effort to invest in America’s students and workers.”

Reversing Trump orders on DACA, diversity in admissions, Title IX, more

The Biden administration has promised to reverse a number of Trump-era executive orders, including the 2017 order rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy implemented under President Obama.

Over the past four years, it has taken a great deal of legal activity, including a Supreme Court ruling, to protect the legal status of more than 600,000 DACA recipients. NPR says that on his first day in office, Biden has said he will produce comprehensive immigration legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship for 11 million migrants living in the United States illegally. The bill would also provide a pathway to citizenship for people commonly known as Dreamers, many of whom have DACA status.

As The Washington Post reports, other likely reversals include a Trump order killing guidance on the use of diversity in college admissions; a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination against White and Asian students at Yale University; a ban on federal grant recipients from holding diversity training; an investigation of Princeton University launched after the university’s president spoke of institutional racism on campus; and the administration’s revised Title IX regulation, which gives students accused of sexual assault more due-process rights in investigations. This last would require a formal regulatory process or legislative action.

Plans for other regulations focus on the for-profit sector, including reinstating the Obama-administration borrower defense rule revised in 2019 by the Trump administration, and eliminating the 90/10 loophole, which requires for-profit institutions to get at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources other than federal student aid. Currently, education benefits from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs count toward the 10 percent minimum requirement, potentially making those receiving the military benefits a target for unscrupulous institutions.

International students once again welcome

The Trump administration spent the entirety of its tenure chipping away at immigration and policies that have for years supported international students and scholars. The Biden administration is likely to make reversing these policies a priority early on. As Forbes writes, “the difference between the two presidents’ rhetoric on immigrants and refugees should be night and day,” and many international students already are looking forward to feeling more secure and welcome.  

Among the areas we’re likely to see addressed are recent changes in H-1B visa policy; proposed limits on how long international students can remain in the country (known as duration of status); the ban on the entry of individuals from primarily Muslim countries; the public charge rule; and the backlog in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and State Department visa processing.

The departments of Labor (DOL) and Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled the new H-IB restrictions last month. The DOL rule, which was effective immediately, will result in significantly higher government prevailing wage minimums for foreign professional workers, while the DHS rule introduces stricter eligibility criteria for H-1B specialty occupations and places new restrictions on H-1B workers at third-party worksites, among its provisions. The DHS rule is set to go into effect Dec. 7, 2020. ACE and 23 other higher education associations have filed two briefs supporting a pair of legal challenges to the proposed rules.

DHS published its proposed rule on duration of statue in September, an attempt to create a fixed duration of admission of either two or four years for international students, scholars, and researchers on F or J visas. Currently, F-1 student visas are granted for the duration of a student’s studies, as long as the student is enrolled in a full-time course of study. Along with over 80 other associations, ACE submitted comments to DHS expressing strong opposition to the rule.

For more on what the Biden administration means for higher education, watch for the next episode of our dotEDU podcast with guest Terry Hartle, which will be released on Thursday, Nov. 12.