Biden’s victory means a reboot of US higher education policy


Joe Biden’s election as the next president of the United States will fundamentally alter the destructive higher education policies pursued over the past four years under Donald Trump.

The Trump administration pursued increasingly restrictive visa policies, dampening the ability and interest of international talent to come to American universities, repeatedly proposed large-scale cuts in student financial aid as well as funding for science, invoked anti-immigrant policies that affected students, and reduced restrictions on largely predatory for-profit tertiary education businesses.

Perhaps most damaging, Trump persistently denied the realities of climate change and initially labelled the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax, claiming that the science community, including those in universities, were hopelessly politically biased and not to be trusted. A substantial portion of the American public seems to believe him.

Globally, and in much of the United States, Biden’s election has brought a huge sense of relief – the seeming near end of an anti-globalist and chaotic administration led by a demagogue who found political success by generating division and rancour. A Biden-Harris administration will make a sharp turn toward a more progressive higher education policy agenda.

Most of Trump’s regressive policies can be reversed or altered. The portrayal of science and academic research as ‘fake news’ and the effort to discredit public institutions, including federal science agencies that are supposed to be non-political, will have a much longer and more problematic impact.

Two categories of initiatives

Biden’s election promises to boost college-going rates and re-invest in public tertiary institutions fall into two general categories: policies and actions that can be taken by the president via his administration and through presidential executive orders, and those that will require legislative action by Congress.

The scope of Biden’s higher education agenda will also depend on the cost of proposed programmes and the political composition of the US Senate which may remain in the control of Republicans. This makes it very unlikely that the Biden administration will be able to enact and fund some of its more progressive proposals.

When Biden officially takes office in late January, and in the short-term constrained by the path of the pandemic, he will probably act to make visa policies for international students and for attracting academic talent much less restrictive. This fits into a larger understanding of the US’s role in international affairs.

Biden intends to rebuild international relations and, on the first day of his presidency, rejoin the World Health Organization, re-enter the Paris climate accord, outline plans that strengthen NATO and revisit the Iran nuclear deal.

His efforts to re-enter the global community will also include reversing the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ that included students from a designated group of largely Muslim countries, reinstating the DREAMers programme allowing children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the US and revising Trump-era rules that made it increasingly difficult for international students to study and then work in the United States.

“Foreign graduates of a US doctoral programme should be given a green card with their degree,” Biden’s campaign platform states. “Losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”

With significant advances with a vaccine and therapies and a more cooperative American population in following basic health rules to limit the pandemic, the declines in international student numbers and hiring talent from across the world will likely be reversed.

Yet there will remain market disadvantages for US universities and colleges in attracting students, including not only the negative legacy of Trump’s policies, but also relatively higher tuition rates, particularly at name-brand universities, and global competition from non-US universities that are improving steadily in quality and ability to attract international talent – usually backed by their national and regional governments.

Free tuition and more?

Like the previous Obama-Biden administration, the new administration will place a heavy emphasis on federal support for community colleges – two-year institutions that offer associate of art degrees that then allow a student to transfer to a four-year institution, as well as vocational and adult education courses and certificates.

Biden promises to provide federal funding to states to provide “two years of community college or other high-quality training programmes without debt for any hard-working individual looking to learn and improve their skills to keep up with the changing nature of work”. And Biden proposes a US$50 billion investment in workforce training, including community college-business partnerships and apprenticeships.

Reflecting the promises of rivals in the earlier Democratic primary election, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden also wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-fee-free for all families with an annual income below US$125,000.

And there are plans to double the maximum value of Pell Grants given to low-income students to subsidise tuition and housing costs. In the 1970s, Pell Grants covered roughly 70% to 80% of the cost of a four-year degree at a public institution; today, that percentage has been cut in more than half, to roughly 30%.

Collectively, Biden’s initiatives for free higher education would require a massive increase in federal involvement and regulatory controls on public higher education – historically the purview of states. They also require increased investment by states to partially match federal funding, monies states simply do not have now or will not probably have in the near future.

One recent study estimates that the free college plan alone would cost US$49.6 billion in the first year, with US$33.1 billion covered by the federal government and US$16.5 billion by states. Over 10 years, it would cost the federal government and states US$683.1 billion.

Two realities

Hanging over all of these policy initiatives and plans is the impact of COVID-19. The first reality are declines in enrolment, largely at the undergraduate level, and particularly among first-year as well as international students.

Roughly one month into the fall 2020 semester, and according to the latest data by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrolment is now running 4.4% below last year’s level, while graduate enrolment is up 2.9%, reflecting demand for job preparation in the midst of rising unemployment.

First-year freshman students experienced the biggest decline of any group, at 14.9% nationally. Community college enrolment dropped 18.9%. Visa restrictions and concern regarding the US handling of the pandemic have contributed to a 14.9% decrease in international students at the undergraduate level and a 7.8% decline at the graduate level.

At the same time, the rapid movement to online courses is not only causing strain for faculty and students; it is also resulting in students delaying their enrolment and, particularly at two-year institutions, resulting in an increased attrition rate among enrolled students.

The second reality is that enrolment declines mean significant declines in tuition income. Coupled with a general and large decline in state and local government tax revenues – the primary source of funding for public universities and colleges – many institutions are entering extremely difficult budgetary waters.

The financial impact includes large scale lay-offs of faculty and staff and the likelihood of a large number of small private institutions closing or having to merge with larger institutions. We are at the edge of a major transition in the composition of America’s higher education system

The big variable

With the approach of a new Biden-Harris administration, the big variable is if a second and large federal stimulus programme will include funding for state and local governments. Without it, the US will face large-scale lay-offs of public servants like teachers and police and additional cuts to public services and institutions, including higher education. It will mean ballooning unemployment levels.

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has proposed a federal stimulus bill that includes funding for states. The problem is that Republicans still control the Senate, as of this writing, and may continue to do so into 2021. Thus far, they have blocked a second stimulus bill of sufficient scale to get the nation through the next phase of a growing pandemic in the US and support state and local governments.

Even if Democrats eventually control the Senate (seemingly unlikely at the moment with two run-off elections in January), the free tuition proposals will probably meet stiff opposition. The cost is large and the mechanisms to reach agreements with states to fund and implement this are difficult (tuition rates vary among public colleges and universities).

Democratic senators in the so-called ‘purple states’ (states that are populated by roughly equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters) will likely join Republicans in opposing large-scale funding schemes on fiscal grounds. In this scenario, expect Biden increasingly to use executive orders.

A message

Even in the likelihood that the free tuition schemes offered by Biden during the campaign do not come to fruition, the US will have a president and government that understand the key role of higher education in economic development and socio-economic mobility. Policies and programmes, and funding, will hopefully follow. It’s a welcome message for the vast network of colleges and universities, for students and the academic research community.

Just as importantly, Biden’s ascent is a message to the world that the US once again seeks cooperation and engagement with the international community, including providing a welcoming place for talent.

Again, the path of the pandemic hangs over all predictions of the future. Higher education’s new normal may well mean more online coursework and degrees and a reorganisation of international networks of academics and students. But there is also the spectre of a form of stability by fall 2021, if therapies, testing and vaccines severely mitigate the pandemic.

Indeed, the rapid expansion of online courses and degree programmes and the reopening of college and university campuses may result in a largely unexpected major revitalisation of most, but not all, sectors of US higher education.

Under a positive scenario, the big variable, as noted, will be the severity of additional funding cuts and the capacity of colleges and universities to do their own reboot to meet demand.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow and research professor in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, United States. He is the author of Neo-Nationalism and Universities (forthcoming) and The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Richard J Edelstein is a senior research associate at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education who studies the impact of globalisation on higher education institutions. He is also principal and managing director at Global University Concepts, a higher education consultancy he launched to advise universities on international strategies and the development of partnerships and alliances with foreign institutions. Copyright 2020 John Aubrey Douglass and Richard Edelstein, all rights reserved.

Richard Edelstein
Publication date: 
November 25, 2020
Publication type: 
Journal Articles