With Biden Poised to Take White House, What’s Next for His Higher Education Priorities?

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

With former Vice President Joe Biden securing enough electoral votes over the weekend to win the presidency — barring a legal challenge from President Donald Trump’s campaign — attention in the higher education community has quickly turned to what he will do during his first few weeks in office, with particular interest in what his administration would do with regard to the student loan debt held by millions of borrowers.

Payments on federally-held student loans have been paused due to the ongoing pandemic caused by the coronavirus, and Trump’s executive order extending the pause has potentially opened the door for the president-elect to use his authority to provide borrowers with loan relief.

Biden not only campaigned on eliminating $10,000 from all borrowers’ student loan debt, but he also included in his higher education priorities a plan to make two-year community college tuition-free for those attending in their state of residence and cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities for students from families with incomes under $125,000.

At this point, it is unclear how Biden would go about enacting student debt forgiveness. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) together called for $50,000 student debt forgiveness in response to the pandemic, and have argued Biden could do so through executive action.

Warren and Schumer’s resolution “outlines how the president should use executive authority to cancel student loan debt and ensure there is no tax liability for federal student loan borrowers resulting from administrative debt cancellation.”

Schumer in an interview last week reiterated that approach, saying Biden can take such action “with the pen as opposed to legislation.”

And while the House retained its Democratic majority, control of the Senate is still unknown, as both Senate races in Georgia appear to be headed toward runoffs, to be held in January.

“Right now the Biden folks face a challenge,” said Rick Hess, a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “They won't know whether they have a Democratic or Republican Senate until early January, which makes it very hard for them to know who they can appoint” to Cabinet positions since they require approval by the Senate.

Furthermore, Biden and Democrats have several different courses of action to try to achieve their priorities, depending on whether they control the Senate.

“One of the big questions going forward will be whether the Biden administration will choose a path of reconciliation, and whether Republicans would be willing to accept it,” said Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education (ACE). “Biden has said he wants to govern in a bipartisan manner and work with everyone. The question is simply whether or not the Republicans are willing to do that, or whether they will try to put up roadblocks everywhere they can.”

In the short term, NASFAA recently joined the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) and the American Council on Education (ACE) in urging the Department of Education (ED) to extend and expand the student loan repayment relief provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with several relief efforts set to expire at the end of the year.

Without action from the Trump administration by the end of December, it may fall to Biden to address the issue during his first few weeks in office, whether through executive action or through a coronavirus stimulus package. Such a package could serve as a vehicle to implement more widespread student debt relief, as well as additional funds to offset the losses institutions faced as the pandemic disrupted operations, said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at NASFAA.

“I think the priority of the Biden administration … will be coming in and really trying to think about how they are going to hit the pandemic head-on and get a real kind of strategy in place,” she said. “And I think a big part of that does include trying to provide some additional relief for higher education.”

As for ED policies that were enacted under the Obama administration and since chipped away at by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, such as borrower defense and gainful employment, a Biden administration may seek to bring them back in some capacity, Hartle said.

On his campaign website, Biden said his administration would reimplement the 2016 borrower defense rule. DeVos rewrote the rule, prompting Congress to pass a resolution in an attempt to block its implementation. Ultimately, though, Congress was unable to override a presidential veto.

DeVos in her tenure as secretary did away with the gainful employment regulations enacted during Obama’s administration. Hartle noted that it remains to be seen whether Biden would push to reimplement the same policy or for different, potentially stricter, regulations.

Coval cautioned that putting those Obama-era policies back in place would take time, accounting for a public comment period and negotiated rulemaking. She added that while she doesn’t expect a Biden administration to completely follow in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor, those accountability measures are expected to be high on his priority list.

“I think we can expect the Biden administration to come in and really bring those issues back to the forefront,” she said. “They feel that these were really loosened up too much, and that they are looking to get back to a place to tighten up these measures.”

Regardless of what education policies Biden is able to enact, his presidency appears poised for a new approach to protecting borrowers and focusing on higher education initiatives. In his acceptance speech Saturday night, Biden touted his wife Dr. Jill Biden, who previously taught English at Northern Virginia Community College, saying “for America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”


Publication Date: 11/9/2020

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