Community Colleges Expected to Have Their Moment in Biden White House. But in Parting Salvo, DeVos Calls Ideas Like Free Tuition ‘Insidious’
President-elect Joe Biden’s early actions following the election indicate that he is poised to bring a much-needed boost to the struggling community colleges in the nation. This represents a significant departure from the current administration’s policies, which have been criticized as harmful.
Observers believe that Biden’s planned moves signal a return to the priorities of the Obama administration, which focused on improving higher education before leaving office in 2017.
First Lady Jill Biden, who has a background as a community college instructor and conducted research on improving completion rates at two-year colleges, is expected to play a crucial role in shaping the new administration’s policies. Biden also intends to appoint labor economist Cecilia Rouse as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Rouse, who specializes in higher education finance, brings valuable expertise to the table.
Biden, a strong advocate for making community college free, previously served as the co-chair of College Promise, a national nonprofit that promotes this policy. In a recent address to educators affiliated with the organization, she assured them of the new administration’s support, stating that they understand the importance of this work.
The President-elect has also proposed a plan to eliminate up to $10,000 in student debt for college attendees and provide debt relief to graduates who work in educational institutions, government agencies, community service organizations, or nonprofits. Biden has emphasized the urgency of implementing this loan forgiveness plan.
These proposals diverge greatly from the current administration’s stance on college affordability. Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the ideas of canceling or forgiving college debt and making community college free as a misguided approach to government assistance.
Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education, anticipates that the issue of tuition-free community college will regain attention under the new administration. He notes that Jill Biden had a significant influence on community college efforts during the Obama era.
However, Kelchen recognizes the challenges in obtaining support from a divided Congress. He believes that if the Democrats gain control of the Senate, there is a possibility of passing such proposals, but it would require strong unity within the Democratic caucus and Republican votes.
The nomination of Cecilia Rouse to lead the Council of Economic Advisers further strengthens Biden’s focus on tuition-free community college and debt relief. As a respected economist with experience in postsecondary education, she has advocated for college completion as a crucial aspect of education policy. Rouse emphasizes the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving federal, state, and local governments, educational institutions, and students themselves.
Rouse highlights the importance of simplifying the federal financial aid process based on research showing that it leads to increased college enrollment and persistence. She recognizes the significance of community colleges, which enroll a significant portion of undergraduates and are easily accessible to most Americans.
Eric Waldo, a former executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, praises Rouse’s dedication to expanding college access. He believes that her wealth of experience and commitment to equity in education make her a valuable asset in this field.
Thomas Kane, an economist and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, expressed enthusiasm over Rouse’s appointment, stating that it is excellent news for the education community. Judith Scott-Clayton, an economist from Columbia University’s Teachers College, also praised Rouse, highlighting her expertise in higher education policy, community colleges, and student loans. Scott-Clayton mentioned that Rouse has been studying these subjects and building the research foundation long before they became popular topics.
Despite the possibility of a divided Congress, there are potential avenues for President Biden to pursue his goal of providing two years of tuition-free education or training for eligible students. Regulatory authority could be utilized to expand student access to financial aid, effectively achieving the same objective. Kevin Kelchen, a scholar from Seton Hall, emphasized the need for the Biden administration to choose its battles wisely, whether it be increasing the Pell Grant, implementing tuition-free community college, or addressing student debt forgiveness. Kelchen suggested that focusing on debt forgiveness or deferment could allow the administration to bypass Congress through executive action.
Former Reach Higher Initiative director Waldo supported this idea, acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding the composition of Congress but emphasizing the urgent need for assistance. Waldo expressed hope that individuals would come together to support higher education, students, and workers who require re-training to adapt to the changing job market. The focus, according to Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, should be on making higher education affordable, accessible, and flexible, particularly for low-income and working students. Tuminez highlighted the importance of unlocking the potential of the majority of students who are not enrolled in elite institutions.
In the midst of the ongoing Covid-related recession, with millions still unemployed, community colleges could play a crucial role in economic recovery. Having Rouse lead the council allows her expertise in higher education policy to be integrated into the broader economic agenda of the administration. This recognition reflects the significance of the education agenda, including community college policies, in promoting the overall economic health and recovery of the nation.