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The Biden Agenda: What Could Be Ahead for Higher Education
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The Biden Agenda: What Could Be Ahead for Higher Education

Expensive plans for free college and a return to Obama's Title IX guidance for starters.

When it comes to domestic policy, the question is which President Biden would emerge: the affable Obamaphile centrist or the AOC sock puppet? In higher education, it’s something of a difference without a distinction. Biden may have been the most centrist top-tier candidate in the 2020 Democratic field, but his higher-ed agenda is also the most expansive, expensive, and intrusive proposal ever offered by a major party nominee.

While Biden has called for doubling or tripling federal spending on K-12 and for vast new outlays for early childhood education, his most ambitious education offerings are reserved for higher ed. Biden has proposed federally funded “free college,” billions in student loan forgiveness, and gender-related policies that would remake daily life in the nation’s colleges.

Biden’s proposals pale alongside what Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren called for during the primaries but also make Obama’s approach look positively Reaganesque.

Why is Biden’s education agenda so likely to focus on higher education? At least three factors are at work.

When it comes to K-12 policies like testing and charter schools, Democrats are confronted with angry splits—between teacher unions and “reformers” and also between urban minorities and woke white progressives. When it comes to higher ed, they skirt these tensions by focusing on giving away free stuff, supporting #MeToo, and promoting transgender rights.

Also, unlike in early childhood or K-12, Uncle Sam already foots a huge share of the bill when it comes to higher ed. The popularity of the Pell grant program, Washington’s status as the nation’s largest student lender, and the federally overseen accreditation apparatus mean that higher ed proposals mostly get a pass on debates about the federal role in education.

Finally, while K-12 is suffused by poisoned brands like Common Core and No Child Left Behind, higher ed is largely free from this baggage. Instead of wading into terrain where previous reforms have repeatedly angered teachers and suburban parents, Biden gets to make college cheaper, mail out refunds, and engage in base-pleasing identity politics. 

Key Proposals

If higher education is likely to be a tentpole of the Biden domestic agenda, what will it entail? The gist is captured in four commitments: 

Free college. Biden has said he will “make up to two years of community college free for all students.” He’s also endorsed Sanders’ proposal to make public colleges and universities free for families earning less than $125,000 a year. Well, 35 percent of students attend two-year colleges. Across all two- and four-year colleges, public institutions enroll three-quarters of all students, and the lion’s share of American families earn less than $125,000 a year. In short, Biden’s plan would amount to federally funded free college for most students.

At the same time, given that Biden’s plan is more modest than what many progressives have called for, it’s not hard to imagine a more expansive Sanders-Warren plan gaining traction. Sanders, for one, clearly thinks Biden is open to negotiation. He’s treated Biden’s vision as an opening bid, insisting, “We have to go much further. We need to make all public universities, colleges, and trade schools tuition-free for everyone like our high schools are.” One big challenge, as AEI’s Jason Delisle has observed, is that free college needs to be designed as a grant-based program that states opt into. However, figuring out how to structure funding so that it’s attractive to states, is politically palatable, and avoids perverse incentives seems primed to trigger PTSD for any Democrats who recall the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act.

College debt forgiveness. Biden has proposed forgiving all undergraduate “tuition-related” student debt for “for debt-holders earning up to $125,000” a year who attended a public two- or four-year institution. If that seems like it includes a lot of borrowers, that’s correct. If it seems like there are a lot of important particulars that need to be filled in (like what counts as “earnings”), that’s also correct. Biden has also embraced Warren’s call to immediately cancel at least $10,000 of student debt per person. Oh, and the 25 percent of Americans who work in “public service” (read: just about any government or nonprofit job) would have an additional $10,000 forgiven each year for up to five years (for a total of $50,000). 

Now, here’s the remarkable thing: Biden’s plans to have most students go to school for free would have hardly any effect on student loan debt. This is because, as AEI’s Delisle has documented, just 15 percent of student loans each year are issued to the students who would qualify for federal free-college policies. The irony? Since most current student debt is racked up by graduate school students and Ivy-trained baristas, even going for the full Biden would leave most of the “debt crisis” unaddressed. 

Equality Act. If Democrats scrap the filibuster, it’s almost a surety that they’ll rapidly enact the Equality Act, adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In addition, they would expand the law’s definition of public accommodations and circumscribe the reach of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This would effectively scrap sex-based distinctions. Single-sex campuses, dormitories, programs, sports, and locker rooms would have to accommodate students without regard to biological sex. Further curtailing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would make it more difficult for religious institutions to defend themselves against allegations of gender-based discrimination.

The practical consequences could be substantial. In 2014, for instance, a transgender student at George Fox University—a small Quaker college in Oregon—filed a Title IX complaint against the university after it assigned the student to a single-sex dorms based on biological sex rather than the student’s gender identity. That complaint was dismissed only because the college could argue that was protected by its religious exemption to Title IX. Or consider the case of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, which is engaged in an ongoing 2018 lawsuit with a graduate student who was expelled after the evangelical institution learned that she had married a woman. The student charged that the seminary’s religious practices violated her Title IX rights. Under the Equality Act, the autonomy of religious institutions to set faith-based norms on matters of gender and sexuality would rest wholly on the Supreme Court’s willingness to champion an expansive reading of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. 

Title IX. Biden has promised a “quick end” to the Trump administration’s revamped Title IX rules, which reversed Obama-era guidance by adding due-process protections for accused students and relieving schools of some legal liabilities. Biden would reinstate Obama administration Title IX guidance, under which students accused of sexual assault were expelled after university-run show trials with no right to an attorney, no right to question their accuser, and no right to see the evidence. In a bizarre twist on double jeopardy, the Obama rules even allowed the accuser to appeal the verdict while affording no such right to the accused. Of the hundreds of lawsuits filed by students railroaded under the Obama policy, U.S. federal and state courts ruled against universities more than half the time.

The Implications

So what to make of all this? First, as far as the costs: The website “Student Loan Planner” estimates the cost of the Biden free college and student loan plans at $2.9 trillion over the next decade. That excludes Biden’s promises for historically black colleges and universities, campus facilities, broadband, and more. 

Meanwhile, despite the enthusiasm for free college and loan forgiveness, it’s unclear just what problem these trillions are intended to solve. For low- and middle-income students, generous financial aid policies mean that inflation-adjusted net annual tuition increased less than $600 between 1996 and 2016. As for loans, in a 2014 Brookings Institution Analysis, researchers Beth Akers and Matt Chingos found, since 1992, the median borrower has consistently spent about 4 percent of monthly income repaying student loans. In a 2019 analysis of millennial households, Akers calculated a similar 4 percent rate. In other words, for the vast majority of borrowers, loan forgiveness would solve a non-problem, while rewarding heavy borrowers and stiffing non-college-goers, those who’ve paid off their loans, and college attendees who scrimped by opting for cheaper schools or working nights. And, given that college graduates enjoy a big boost to lifetime earnings, all these policies seem geared to serving the Americans with the best financial prospects. It’s an odd sort of progressivism.

While all of the aforementioned proposals have broad Democratic support and Biden’s energetic embrace, there are three potential fault lines worth keeping an eye on. 

First, the Equality Act and Biden’s Title IX policy are freighted with culture war baggage, which could be a bridge too far for Democrats not sold on the more radical aspects of the woke cultural crusades. The Equality Act would functionally end single-sex colleges, dorm rooms, and sports teams. Biden’s pledge to resurrect Obama-era Title IX guidance means returning to a standard that led courts to throw out more than 100 campus convictions as gross violations of due process. While there’s no longer much of a moderate Democratic caucus in Congress, members representing red and purple constituencies could have second thoughts on all this. 

Second, there’s always the chance that higher education will awaken to the implications of free college. A remarkable thing about the free college push is how little attention has been paid to the potential impact on governance, staffing, and operations. Whereas the implications of the Affordable Care Act for the autonomy of physicians and hospitals was a hotly debated topic in 2009, the issue is rarely posed to free college evangelists. That’s bizarre, given that free college proposals have included enrollment and spending objectives, restrictions on the permissible ratios of adjunct faculty and merit-based financial aid, calls for federal oversight of costs, and more. While the higher ed community has thus far been docile, that could change. 

Finally, the big tension between the Sanders-Warren wing and what’s left of the Obama higher ed crowd concerns how new funds should be allocated and whether they should be accompanied by accountability requirements. Center-left wonks at places like the Urban Institute and Third Way have critiqued Sanders-style free college and loan forgiveness as a massive giveaway to the affluent. Meanwhile, the centrists have their own grand aspiration: federal accountability (see here or here). Essentially, they want a higher-ed version of No Child Left Behind, but with “completion” auditioning for the role that test scores played in NCLB. This clash, over outlays and accountability, is likely to define intra-Democratic negotiations.

If the filibuster remains intact, it’s hard to see a Senate in which the Democrats garner 60 votes for any of this. In that case, they’d have to turn to budget reconciliation to pursue Biden’s free college agenda. There are, of course, stark limits on what’s possible via that route, given that outlays must be offset and that the Senate parliamentarian has historically ruled reconciliation can’t be used to create new programs. But the Democrats would undoubtedly be able to portray a stripped-down version of Biden’s free college plan as an extension of existing policy, and could certainly identify pay-fors if sufficiently motivated. 

The bottom line? The Biden agenda would entail vast new subsidies to the professional class, increased federal control of higher education, a “Great Leap Forward”-style razing of gender distinctions across colleges and universities, and fierce new legal clashes over due process and sexual assault. Meanwhile, given that every nation that provides free higher education winds up rationing access, it likely wouldn’t be too long before the costs of free college forced federal officials to start contemplating price controls and enrollment restrictions. Those would almost assuredly become the new ground zero in the higher education debates. 

What should conservatives make of all this? Oddly, at least when it comes to free college, things aren’t as grim as they may seem. In fact, intriguing opportunities emerge. Most notably, public colleges that have long pocketed staggering public subsidies with relative impunity would be much more directly under Washington’s thumb. While this may be horrific public policy in principle, in practice it means lawmakers and federal officials would start to enjoy the same kinds of control over higher education when it comes to costs, operations, practices, and reporting that Medicare affords them over participating physicians and hospitals. Talk about a target rich environment! Smart, entrepreneurial GOP senators could have a field day targeting the bloat, sloth, and ideological bias that too often pass for academic culture.

For decades, education was how presidential nominees courted the center. In 1988, Bush used his promise to be “the education president” to illustrate his “kinder and gentler” conservatism and, in 2000, education was the signature issue for George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” For Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama, challenging teacher union orthodoxy and making higher education more affordable served to highlight their centrist bona fides. In 2020—as in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump embraced vouchers and denounced the Common Core—that’s no longer the case.

Every president enters office with a long list of promises. Most don’t come to fruition. In this case, however, Biden’s proposals enjoy wide support in the Democratic party and stroke a sweet spot in the Democratic zeitgeist. If Biden wins and things break this fall in the Democrats’ favor, we could be just months from changes that would profoundly and permanently alter the shape of American higher education.

Previous articles from “The Biden Agenda”:

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Photograph by Adam Soloman/Flickr.