All bets are off when it comes to the winner of Tuesday’s United States presidential race. Polls show former vice president Joe Biden with a stable and consistent lead nationally. But against the backdrop of a pandemic that has polarised the electorate and with memories of a wild election night in 2016 still fresh, too many unknowns make it tough to confidently predict a likely victor.
The only certainty is this: The candidates hold vastly different visions of how to lead the nation. And they hold vastly different views about how higher education can contribute to their efforts.
With regard to the latter, Donald Trump has spent much of his time in the White House casting the academic and scientific communities as untrustworthy, their pursuit of knowledge as ignorable. If he remains in office, US higher education can expect more of the same.
If Biden becomes president, he would most likely begin with rescinding Trump administration policies that are within his immediate control, then focus on reviving and strengthening a higher education system that many argue has long failed the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
No one is expecting – or even advocating – a return to the pre-pandemic or pre-Trumpian status quo. With all that has taken place in just the last eight months, the stakes have changed.
“Returning to the old normal would be disastrous because we know ‘normal’ for most of the world is not something people want,” Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, a non-profit foundation that promotes access to education beyond high school, said in an email. “They want and deserve much better.”
The Trump campaign mostly has pointed to the administration’s record on higher education to suggest its priorities for a second term. A campaign website highlights a tweak to the Federal Pell Grant Program that allows low-income students to use funds over summer and winter breaks, “so they can earn their degrees faster with fewer loans”, as well refinements designed to make it easier for students to apply for and receive student financial aid.
The website also touts its federal assistance of nearly US$360 million to states in which students were displaced by hurricanes and the 2017 California wildfires, and Trump takes credit for making permanent an ongoing annual federal investment in historically black colleges and universities.
Among policy victories that Biden aims to reverse, Mary Clare Amselem, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, notes Trump’s rollback of an Obama era change to student loan forgiveness policy that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said was far too broad.
Policy watchers expect a second Trump term to similarly reflect this year’s budget proposals on federal aid, which include “hard-hitting” cuts to student aid, one of which would have pulled up to US$2 billion from the Pell Grant reserve funds, said Rachel Gentry, assistant director of federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
She says she would similarly anticipate “some forward movement” on Trump proposals to eliminate subsidised loans, to modify a loan forgiveness programme for graduates who enter public service careers, and reduce federal funding for campus-based student jobs.
Beyond regulatory efforts, “it is unclear where the administration would focus its higher education policy in the future,” Amselem said, though Merisotis conjectured it’s “likely that we’d see continued efforts to bring apprenticeships and other workforce programmes more fully into the higher education fold”.
Biden’s campaign platform identifies affordability, student debt, student success and consumer protection as the top four issues for higher education, which Biden has said will be crucial to jumpstarting the economy amid a pandemic-fuelled recession. His big-picture emphasis aims to “strengthen college as a reliable pathway to the middle class”.
Biden would make public colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions tuition-fee-free for families making less than US$125,000; cancel US$10,000 of every American’s student debt, and revise the current loan repayment system. He also would build on efforts launched during his vice presidency under then-president Barack Obama to support community colleges and training programmes.
“Each of these policy priorities tells a slightly different but interrelated story about the challenges and barriers that the Biden administration would seek to … overcome,” says Merisotis, who anticipates a Biden administration that would “reinvent the state-federal partnership on higher education”. This could include “significant investment on the part of the federal government”.
With polls consistently favouring Biden in this final stretch of the campaign season and with cautious optimism that Democrats will take over the Senate and maintain a majority in the House, some policy watchers are hopeful that Biden will take a harder line with regard to for-profit institutions.
The pandemic and other concerns
Eager to court the black vote, both candidates have emphasised their support of historically black colleges and universities. But overall, higher education itself has played a mostly background role in the campaign trails, even when the campaigns have stopped in college towns. Biden has appealed to the interests of younger voters, particularly around the environmental effects of climate change.
But the impact of the coronavirus has been front and centre. Moderators at all three election season debates have emphasised the pandemic. Biden typically wears a mask at campaign events, including debates, while Trump tends to scoff at these and other protections recommended by public health experts.
Three leading scientific publications – Scientific American, the New England Journal of Medicine and Science – have each castigated Trump’s rejection of evidence and science to inform government decision-making. “The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” which has cost 230,000 American lives and counting, Scientific American said in its endorsement of Biden.
Trump, as recently as last week, remarked that coronavirus is “going away … with very, very few deaths”, the White House science policy office last week listed “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” atop of the administration’s first-term accomplishments, even as public health experts warn Americans to brace for a difficult winter ahead.
In Wisconsin, a battleground state that has seen a recent spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank recently announced another round of furloughs. Since the emergence of COVID in March, it also has frozen salaries and most hiring, eliminated most travel and other discretionary costs, dug into its reserves, and cut salaries for senior leaders by 15%.
These actions reduced expenses, most notably through US$27 million in savings from furloughs and salary cuts. But tuition receipts are down by roughly US$24 million, Blank said, and the university’s research enterprise is falling behind projections by about US$28 million. Meanwhile, COVID-related expenses continue to climb, Blank said.
Similar stories are being told in college communities across the nation. Overall, US colleges and universities have lost more than US$120 billion to COVID-19 and received just US$14 billion in the federal government’s response.
Most evidence supports the view that a Biden victory offers the most hope for US higher education, but the path to recovery remains unclear. As Blank noted: “We are not out of the woods yet.”