The Biden-Harris administration from the start proposed sweeping higher education policies that many advocates praised as long overdue and much needed to tackle equity issues that the pandemic brought to the fore.
Months later, Congress this week, has been debating a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill with key higher education provisions, such as plans for two years of tuition-free community college. But many experts say that these policies have not yet gone far enough in realizing some of the Biden administration’s most ambitious reforms.
“Democrats have a very slim majority in Congress, and they cannot agree on what they want,” said Dr. Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee, on the free community college proposal. “I think every day that the discussions drag on, then the likelihood of passage goes down. Every day makes it harder.”
Another item in the debated reconciliation bill is increasing the Pell Grant for low-income students. With the midterm election next year, Kelchen added that this is a pivotal time for Democrats to get such higher education reforms through.
“This is their best year together,” he said. “If this package doesn’t end up through, there will be even more pressure next year to take action on things like student loans. This is the clearest window for free community college. It could still make its way into the budget next year, but increasing the Pell Grant is politically easier to do.”
Dr. Stella Flores, associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, similarly argued that this is the ideal moment to reinvest in colleges and universities.
“There’s a lot of discussion on if the budget is too high, but what we’re not discussing is the counter to that,” said Flores. “What happens if we don’t invest? We already know institutions are depleted, especially those that serve low-income and minority students. And if we don’t invest in rebuilding, the loss will be far worse for the nation.”
Flores noted that support for college completion is one of the most important policy items still at stake. The Biden administration proposed a $62 billion College Completion Fund in the American Families Plan, though the reconciliation bill presently includes $9 billion of the president's initial proposal.
“College completion is a big goal, but it is an ultimate goal for self-sufficiency, for helping people reach the American Dream,” said Flores. “Every time a student can’t complete college, it’s a loss of human capital, a loss of investment. I would hate to see it fall.”
Studies show that only about six in ten students attending a four-year institution in the U.S. finish with a degree. Community colleges suffer an even lower completion rate and mostly educate low-income students and students of color.
“The Biden-Harris administration has been clear from the beginning that they will focus on racial and socioeconomic equity. That shines through in proposals like the College Completion Fund,” said Mamie Voight, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research and advocacy organization that focuses on college access and success.
Many students are still facing financial pressures to finish college in the pandemic, added Flores.
“We’re at a time when loans for tuition seem like such a luxury instead of a loan just to make rent,” she said. “We need to understand that college completion is even harder. Now people need additional funds just to survive the pandemic. But tuition is not a luxury. It is essential for future development.”
Voight agreed that broader help for students is needed, which the fund addresses.
“Institutions need additional capacity, both technological and human, to get students across the finish line, to implement the policies and practices at meeting them where they are,” said Voight. “And students need support for a variety of expenses, not just tuition, such as broadband and childcare access. There’s a recognition of the student as a full individual and their full experience in college. There is great reason for optimism.”
She noted that even before the pandemic, around 36 million people had stopped out of college. The pandemic resulted for many institutions in more students dropping out, especially at community colleges.
“We were very hopeful at the start of the administration to see our First Lady, of course, as a community college faculty member,” said Dr. Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches community colleges. “That sent the signal that these institutions are key for the economic and democratic recovery of our country. That this is a moment to uplift community colleges. Then the reality hit.”
Rios-Aguilar referred to structural challenges of making changes in community colleges at the federal level.
“We saw all these reports in the pandemic about how community colleges got hit the hardest with enrollment declines,” said Rios-Aguilar. “Every community college I talked to around the country had this big weight on them with that pressure of enrollment, of what we are going to do.”
She saw that moment as showing the country that community colleges have been severely underfunded yet educate the most marginalized students.
“The sentiment has been that things would get worse before they get better,” said Rios-Aguilar. “I’ve been hearing from community colleges that this is true. We are in this moment of struggle, but there are also many moments of hope when we think about fundamental barriers that need to be more equitable.”
Rios-Aguilar noted some problems in the reconciliation bill’s proposed two years of tuition-free community college, including that only full-time students would be eligible.
“But the reality is that about 70% of people who enroll in community colleges are part-time,” she said. “So, there are a lot of structural barriers that still keep the community college sector from succeeding more.”
Yet she added that the community colleges themselves are making changes in some states to improve equity without waiting on the federal government. For instance, community colleges in California have started working to offer baccalaureate degrees.
“The question then becomes what the federal government is going to say, whether reforms at the state level will be embraced,” said Rios-Aguilar. “There are opportunities for the federal government to be bolder and faster, but we are stuck in political divides. So, a lot of community colleges are not just hoping change happens. They are acting already.”
Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), has also been critical of where higher education reforms have fallen short in Congress so far. UNCF is a philanthropic organization that funds scholarships and provides financial support to 37 private historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“When the administration began with an HBCU alum on the winning ticket for the first time in history, we had really high aspirations—and we still do,” said Murray.
He explained that doubling the Pell Grant would have a large impact on HBCUs, where about 75% of students are low-income and Pell Grant eligible. Biden proposed a $1,475 increase to the maximum Pell Grant award as part of working to double the support. Yet the reconciliation package presently includes a $500 increase.
“We seem in lock step with the President,” said Murray, referring to the American Rescue Plan’s support to HBCUs weathering COVID-19. “The American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan envisioned transformational changes in our institutions. Together, those two plans would have been about a $95 billion investment in tribal colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and HBCUs.”
Yet the reconciliation bill, while it still offers billions of funding to such institutions, had lowered that proposed total investment, which Murray and several HBCU leaders have critiqued.
“We have had more problems this year with making sure that Congress implements the plans [President Biden] puts forward,” said Murray. “That’s a turnaround for us. Usually, presidents don’t include HBCUs so prominently in their plans. But this president has done that. So now we just need to make sure that Congress follows up with the president’s priorities.”
Part of the problem is that, as the bill currently is written, HBCUs will also need to compete for grant funding against more well-funded institutions.
“That is something we just cannot accept,” said Murray. “The president said that like institutions need to compete with like institutions for dedicated funding. And for Congress to not write the bill in that manner is something we cannot abide by. We need to make sure we stand up for these institutions because they continue to be underfunded.”
Looking ahead, next week starts the first negotiated rule-making committee’s session in the Department of Education. Kelchen said that could be a route for the Biden-Harris administration to make more sweeping, faster progress among colleges and universities.
“This is a way for the administration to undo much of what the last administration did around, for example, student loan repayment and regulations,” he said. “That work is well underway and doesn't depend on Congress. Basically, anything that must or may depend on Congress has yet to be done other than getting emergency relief funds out to colleges and students.”
Weeks of more in-the-weeds rule-making sessions may not grab as many headlines as the free community college proposals. But Kelchen said that the Department of Education can take more direct action on issues like borrower defense repayment, which addresses whether students will still have to pay loans to colleges that defrauded them.
“The Biden administration knew that getting things through Congress would be difficult,” said Kelchen. “They are trying their best, but a lot of the action will be on the regulatory side because that is more in their control.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]
Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly reported that the reconciliation bill as currently written offers $2 billion in funding to HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions. The story has been updated to remove that incorrect number. Diverse regrets the error.