Election Results Could Bring About Higher Ed Reforms

As election night wears on, it remains uncertain which party will control Congress for the term starting next year. Although control of the Senate is considered a toss-up, analysts have set Republicans as strong favorites to take over the U.S. House of Representatives. A shift in control of either or both houses of Congress would mean changes for national education policy.

Dr. Kenneth Wong, Professor of Education Policy and Political Science at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public AffairsDr. Kenneth Wong, Professor of Education Policy and Political Science at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs“The Biden administration's education policy is going to face opposition as we move into 2023,” said Dr. Kenneth Wong, a professor of Education Policy and Political Science at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs.

A Republican Congress’s prime educational target might be President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness program, which has attracted close to 26 million applicants so far. 

“Congress controls the purse, right? So, I think they can certainly slow things down quite a bit in terms of this particular initiative,” said Wong. “There are different ways to do it. I think they could establish a new set of guidelines or procedures that really requires the Department of Education to comply. [That] could slow down the timetable.”

According to Wong, a Republican Congress might also give increased scrutiny to curricula involving racial differences and race relations as well as training on diversity and inclusion at institutions that receive federal funding. However, little substantive legislation is expected because bills that could pass the Senate and House would likely be vetoed by Biden. Rather, Congressional Republicans will wield their power in other ways.

“I think that Republicans, particularly in the House, will hold hearings on things that they want to bring to the public attention,” said Dr. Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University’s College of Education. “That may include sensational hearings on things that we've seen discussed at the state level: questions about critical race theory, transgender student rights, potentially even questions about faculty and staff political allegiances.”

These hearings may contribute to what Wong predicts will be a shift in the political climate that may disfavor those tackling issues of diversity.

“Over the last few years there have been a lot of public-private partnerships in really recognizing and integrating diversity as part of the higher education DNA,” said Wong. “Federal leadership in initiating and supporting this kind of conversation is very important. With divided governance, I think it will become more controversial at the federal level and there will be more reexamination of how broad this kind of agenda ought to be and how much federal investment is appropriate.

The results of state races also promise to play a role in the future of higher ed. Although few races had been called at press time, Republicans were in position to potentially pick up several trifectas—states where they control both houses of the state legislature and the governorship. This level of control can be very influential for higher education.

“You'll see a rightward turn in higher education policy in these states because they appoint trustees to public boards, they create policies that last for Dr. Brendan Cantwell, Associate Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University’s College of EducationDr. Brendan Cantwell, Associate Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University’s College of Educationquite a while,” said Cantwell. “You could see Florida as the model: a concerted effort to insert partisan rule over public universities, including their management and curriculum.

One potential trifecta state is Wisconsin, where Republican businessman Tim Michels is looking to oust Democratic governor Tony Evers. According to Wisconsin Public Radio, Michels vowed to sign bills that Evers had vetoed—which include proposals limiting what University of Wisconsin (UW) schools can teach about systemic racism and sexism and forcing UW schools to allow a class on the Constitution to satisfy diversity or ethnic studies requirements. 

“[The] kind of thinking that is hostile to diversity, that is hostile to social justice-oriented curricula, that kind of thinking gets embedded when the Republican party has the opportunity to appoint the majority of people on the country's college and university boards,” said Cantwell. “That kind of thinking is [then] built into the governance structures of higher education and it limits what campus presidents can do.

Results for ballot measures that would affect higher education also remained unknown. Arizona voted for Proposition 308, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. The measure, which was supported locally by both liberals and conservatives, would affect roughly 2,000 high school seniors each year, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal. Massachusetts also voted on an additional income tax for incomes over $1,000,000 which would help to fund education. There were also bond measures on ballots which would have raised a total of nearly $9 billion for capital projects at colleges, led by a $5.3 billion ask for the Los Angeles Community College district. 

Although full election results may not be available for days—or require runoff elections in the weeks ahead—it seems likely that increasing Republican power at the national and state levels will mean that changes to the world of higher education policy are ahead.