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A lack of news about higher education in the first 100 days doesn’t mean that administrators should overlook policy when considering future decisions. Review potential changes and policy predictions.

Politics

Biden’s Impact on Higher Education in the First 100 Days

  • Dominic Fabrizio
  • Chris Suda
  • 5/20/2021

Key insights

  • The Biden administration’s executive orders and legislation haven’t focused on higher education.
  • Debt forgiveness is on the table, but remains uncertain.
  • Funding will likely increase under the new administration.
  • Appointments and soft policy proposals may provide insight into the direction of the administration.

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The first 100 days of any administration’s time in office are often treated as a barometer for a broader agenda, and thus examined for future policy predictions. Administrators within the higher education industry can often use this period to parse through an administration’s actions, predict how policy priorities may impact their organizations, and establish a strategy for future decisions that could preserve and grow their institution.

At a glance, the Biden administration’s policy actions don’t clearly indicate higher education as a major focus. Upon further examination, however, those within the higher education can expect a friendlier stance on many issues — such as discretionary budget funding and immigration — while some potential conflicts could arise related to NCAA student athlete rights and additional oversight of for-profit colleges.

As a higher education professional, you may be adept at sifting through the ephemera of social media blasts and breaking news headlines to discern specific policy proposals and the practical impacts on your institution. As such, there are several actions the Biden administration has taken within its first 100 days that could have significant impacts on the industry.

Potential changes to Title IX

Higher education was noticeably absent from the anticipated flurry of executive orders that kick off any administration. Among newly issued — and newly revoked — executive orders, there did not appear to be any that directly targeted higher education. Conversely, based on EO 14021 — which directed the Secretary of Education to review Title IX policy for inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s stated policy of gender and identity inclusivity — an administrator could infer there will likely be a stark shift from the previous administration’s approach to Title IX policy.

Under Betsy Devos, the Department of Education issued new regulations regarding how institutions approach the disciplinary process for sexual assault and harassment. As the Trump administration had gone through the formal rule-making process, releasing thousands of pages of commentary on the policy, it is unlikely that the previous Title IX rules can be withdrawn by simply issuing an executive order. However, the issuance of EO 14021 signals the Biden administration’s willingness to begin rolling back the changes to Title IX.

The practical implication of these changes could lower the administrative burden on higher education institutions who, in some regard, had to function as courts to settle matters (as opposed to appointing a Title IX administrator to act as investigator and arbiter). Additionally, by reversing the narrow definition of sexual harassment and assault implemented by the Trump administration, there would generally be greater level of protections for victims and historically persecuted classes, which may result in higher female student enrollment and retention in higher education institutions.

Lack of higher education legislation

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly taken up most of the oxygen in the room when it comes to legislation. Though the American Rescue Plan delivered a significant amount of funding to higher education through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, there has not been additional significant legislation that specifically targets higher education.

With infrastructure as the administration’s apparent next priority, it may be safe to assume that major legislation directly targeting the higher education industry — such as potential student loan forgiveness, or tuition-free public and community colleges — is not on the immediate horizon.

Debt forgiveness

Short of legislation, the administration has taken some action on the topic of student loan forgiveness. The Department of Education has extended the federal student loan deferment through September 30, 2021, and discharged federal student loan debt of debtors who qualify as “totally and permanently disabled.” Additionally, the administration has opined on its ability to broadly forgive up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt, while some members of Congress have suggested that the administration can forgive up to $50,000 of debt for each student.

Though whether the administration can forgive federal student loan debt without Congressional action remains to be seen, the topic remains highly contentious and relevant within public discourse. Perhaps the best insights on imminent actions related to federal student loan debt come from James Kvaal, the Department of Education’s Under Secretary, who stated the priorities for the administration’s federal student debt forgiveness plans in a Congressional hearing:

  • Temporary loan forgiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Improving the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program
  • Forgiving debts of students with low incomes and high amounts of federal student loan debt

These statements suggest that broad student loan forgiveness may not be a priority, but some assistance is under consideration to ease the burdens of low-income and other disadvantaged borrowers. By targeting debt forgiveness policies to the most disadvantaged populations, the higher education industry may see potential increases to enrollment for populations who have not traditionally been able to afford higher education, as well as increased retention from economically disadvantaged groups.

Funding

Another leading indicator of an administration’s policy focus are federal and discretionary budget requests. As highlighted in the current administration’s discretionary budget request for FY22, the higher education industry can expect a considerably friendlier administration when it comes to funding. To summarize a few key figures:

  • $30 billion (41%) increase in funding to the Department of Education
  • $3 billion increase to Pell
  • $10 billion to the National Science Foundation
  • $600 million increase to HBCU and MSU funding

Additionally, the maximum Pell award would be increased by $400, with eligibility extended to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients. Juxtaposed with the previous administration’s severe cuts to the higher education industry, administrators could infer expanded funding and aid for their institutions. Aside from the positive impact to their bottom line, institutions may also see an increase in enrollment, as more funds become available to students through expanded financial aid programs.

Notable Appointments

Just as you may be able infer much about someone by the company they keep, we may be able to infer much about the administration’s direction by who they appoint — notably, Department of Education Secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona. Dr. Cardona possesses vast experience in K–12 education and has spent time in the role of Commissioner of Education in Connecticut. While light on higher education experience, Cardona is well-versed in K–12 and managing the response to COVID-19’s affects on the education system broadly. This may indicate that school reopenings and K–12 are a higher priority than higher education reform.

That being said, during the confirmation process, Secretary Cardona expressed support for the reformation of the Office of Federal Student Aid, as well as expanded support to technical and community colleges. Generally, these statements are in alignment with what President Biden campaigned on — a return to the Obama administration’s “borrower defense” position related to students who incurred large amounts of debts with little or no career opportunities, as well as an expansion of the quality and access to technical and community colleges. The practical implication could mean more aggressive oversight of for-profit colleges and increased funding to community and technical programs.

Another notable appointment is Peter Sung Ohr, the Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Though this role is not typically the focus for decisions that impact higher education, we can predict his stance on student athletes’ classification as employees of their respective institutions based on his previous role as Regional Director of the NLRB. Specifically, Mr. Ohr ruled in his previous position that student athletes at a university should be classified as employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Consequently, this could make student athletes eligible for union membership and a host of other benefits.

Though any sort of broad decision like this would have to be further litigated, higher education institutions should be prepared for enhanced scrutiny related to the rights of student athletes and potential spikes in litigation related to the matter.

What does it all mean?

Though it may seem higher education has not been a major area of focus of early legislation in the administration, there have been many actions from which administrators can draw inferences and begin to plan. Generally, the Biden administration appears friendlier to the higher education industry than the previous administration.

If the first 100 days are truly a bellwether, public and non-profit institutions may see the boon of increased enrollment and funding as a result of higher federal budget allocations and additional federal programs, though for-profit institutions may be subjected to additional oversight in the same vein as the Obama administration.

How we can help 

Despite party affiliation, the responsibility of higher education administrators is to plan for and address potential changes within the industry. With so much uncertainty related to internal and external pressures, it is important to study, analyze, and internalize available information. CLA’s industry professionals are ready and willing to assist in addressing pain points and analyzing the practical implications of a new administration’s legislative policies and agenda.

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