Magazine Feature

New President, New Higher Education Plans

A conversation with two policy experts

By Emily Schuster

Winter 2021

Liberal Education spoke with two higher education policy experts on what they expect and hope for from the Biden administration. Viviann Anguiano is an associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Eric R. Felix is an assistant professor at San Diego State University, specializing in higher education policy implementation, community college reform, issues of racial equity, and critical policy analysis. This conversation reflects their thoughts and assessments at the time of publication.

Q: What was your take on President Joe Biden’s education-related executive actions in his first days in office?

Viviann Anguiano: Biden’s executive action to pause federal student loan payments will bring immediate relief to many borrowers as the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic continues. More must be done in the months and years ahead to address racial disparities in higher education and the structural changes necessary to close them—such as providing debt-free college, addressing the student loan crisis, equitably funding community colleges, and ensuring DREAMers (young undocumented immigrants who came here as children) have access to financial aid.

Eric R. Felix: These actions are positive signs that racial equity is not just campaign-trail rhetoric but a focal effort to be addressed through the next four years. The initial executive orders and actions seek to undo much of the previous administration’s work. Pausing federal student loan payments helps, but many equity advocates are seeking the dismissal of student debt altogether.

Q: What do you think of Biden’s choice of Miguel Cardona for education secretary?

Felix: This selection provides an opportunity for the Department of Education to truly carry out a vision for equity. Cardona possesses years of experience as a classroom educator, principal, district-level administrator, and state education commissioner. As a fellow Latino educator, I hope he leverages his own experiences in our schooling systems with his professional knowledge to address the persistent inequities facing Black and Brown communities across rural and urban spaces.

Cardona brings a nuanced understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing American education, particularly in early childhood and K–12 education. I hope that he includes equity advocates in the postsecondary context to help address concerns related to access and success, student loan debt, the rollback of Title IX protections, and ways to safely open campuses during the pandemic.

Q: Do Biden’s American Rescue Plan and the December 2020 omnibus appropriations and coronavirus relief package go far enough to support higher education institutions and students?

Anguiano: The year-end deal had some key policy changes to higher education, such as changing the formula for Pell Grant eligibility to include incarcerated students and students who were defrauded by their institutions, on top of much-needed relief money. Biden’s American Rescue Plan also provides critical relief to students and colleges. But there are broader issues that need to be addressed if we are to advance racial equity and an equitable recovery, like the student loan crisis among Black borrowers who are disproportionately in default, and accountability for predatory for-profit colleges that cheat students.

“Not only do I think Biden’s plans for making college more affordable are possible, but I think they are pragmatically progressive and something that the public is demanding.”

—Viviann Anguiano

Q: What are the chances that the 117th Congress will reauthorize the Higher Education Act? Will the fact that Democrats control both the House and the Senate help Biden enact his higher education policy agenda?

Anguiano: Democratic power in both the House and Senate presents an opportunity to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, but it will be a question of priorities. Students and borrowers really need a reauthorization to make college affordable, improve quality, and address racial equity gaps.

But there are still some areas where Democrats will need to build consensus within college affordability and accountability. And there are some key bipartisan issues that Biden can build on, like supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

Q: What do higher education institutions need from the federal government to address the financial challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Felix: The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s fall 2020 enrollment data showed deep declines in enrollment, especially in the community college sector and among Indigenous, Black, and Latino men and the Indigenous and Black communities in general.

In my own work, I’ve found that economic livelihood is the number one priority for so many students. With the precarity that we have now, students are forced to pause their education and prioritize having a roof over their heads and food in their homes. For many, a lack of access to technology also limits their ability to continue their education during the pandemic.

There needs to be a robust policy from the federal government that gives dollars not only to institutions but also directly to students to secure basic needs. Biden and the Department of Education must make community colleges and the students they serve the priority in education during the first one hundred days.

Anguiano: We need substantially more investment from the federal government to stave off budget cuts, which we know from the Great Recession of 2007–09 really affected higher education and contributed to huge spikes in tuition and the student loan crisis that we have now. We also need a maintenance-of-effort provision, which means that the federal government incentivizes states to maintain current funding levels of higher education.

Q: The Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School presents ideas for making college more affordable, such as by doubling the maximum value of Pell Grants and making two years of community college tuition-free and public colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000. Are Biden’s plans realistic? Do they go far enough?

Anguiano: These plans are ones that the American public is hungry for. Families want to be able to send their kids to college without a massive amount of debt that will hinder an entire generation, as we’re already seeing. Formerly incarcerated students and DREAMers need pathways to thrive in American life. So not only do I think these plans are possible, but I think they are pragmatically progressive and something that the public is demanding.

Felix: Biden has pledged to make two years of community college tuition-free, and that is a very realistic plan. As an advocate for College Promise programs since 2015 under America’s College Promise, Biden must rely on the research documenting the successes and shortcomings of these efforts. Since 2015, there has been a lot more research about the ways College Promise programs may fail to support students, families, and communities and sometimes lead to more student debt. There are 360 local and statewide variations of Promise programs. Typically, they fund two years of community college tuition, but we know students sometimes take up to six years to complete community college. Many Promise programs are built on notions of requiring students to be “exceptional” and “deserving,” such as requiring a 3.0 GPA, so those programs only cover a subsection of the entire college-going population. In many Promise programs, you need to go to college full-time, but who goes full-time nowadays to community college?

Federal policy staff really need to talk to researchers who have studied what elements and designs of local and state Promise programs actually drive change to make community college more efficient and affordable. Any legislation expanding College Promise programs should be universal, meaning that GPA, residency, and involvement with the criminal justice system wouldn’t be tied to who receives the benefits. It should be first dollar, meaning that students would receive these funds before other grants or funding, so that they would have more funds available for costs such as books, childcare, or transportation.

Q: What should the Biden administration do to support community colleges?

Felix: It’s clear that community college is a focal point for the Biden administration. Community colleges are a critical entry point for education. They provide opportunity for all. A community college helped my grandmother get citizenship because she took a history class. My mom completed an accounting certificate program at a community college and became a bank teller as a first-generation immigrant to this country. In my research with community colleges, I’ve talked with sixty-five-year-olds who are trying to gain a second or a third skill, those recently out of incarceration trying to enhance their education, and eighteen-year-olds who are making college more affordable by using dual enrollment to earn college credits while they’re still in high school or by beginning their postsecondary education at a community college with plans to transfer to a four-year institution.

It’s not just about putting community colleges in the spotlight or providing more funding but also acknowledging how underfunded they’ve been for the past century. That trickles down to the ways that students are or aren’t supported.

Anguiano: Community colleges are really the bedrock of the American Dream, but they receive half the revenue that four-year public colleges receive. At the Center for American Progress (CAP), we put out an analysis that showed the revenue gap is $78 billion. This is a racial equity issue because so many Black, Latinx, and low-income students attend community colleges, and many community colleges are also designated as MSIs.

A college affordability plan that recognizes that $78 billion gap would be really important. And there are a lot of things in Biden’s plan, such as the federal-state partnership to help fund two years of tuition-free community college, that are meaningful steps toward that.

“It’s clear that community college is a focal point for the Biden Administration. Community colleges are a critical entry point for education.”

—Eric R. Felix

Q: How do you think having a community college educator as first lady might affect the Biden administration’s policy toward community colleges?

Felix: It’s an amazing opportunity that the first lady is a community college professor who has clearly demonstrated her passion for the institution of community college. Dr. Jill Biden understands the students that community colleges serve, as well as the faculty load for instructors in community colleges. I hope she’ll be able to guide the administration to pass guidelines, reforms, and funding initiatives that provide more resources to these institutions. I also think that it’s important that President Biden attended a state institution, breaking that Ivy League wall of the past thirty years.

Q: What might be the impact of Kamala Harris being the first vice president to have attended an HBCU?

Anguiano: It’s only going to elevate the importance of HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) because they are historical institutions that were created to combat racial discrimination. That mission has to be not only preserved but amplified. The vice president is really going to shed light on the importance of that.

Q: What effect do you think Biden’s policies might have on HBCUs, TCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and other MSIs? What else would you like to see the federal government do for these institutions?

Anguiano: The Biden plan to offer free tuition for up to two years to low-income and middle-class students who attend HBCUs, TCUs, and other MSIs is incredibly significant. In addition, CAP recommends that Congress fund HSIs at $1 billion. Prior to the pandemic, more Latinx students were enrolling in college, but the Latinx completion gap remains significant. HSIs have been shown to do more for closing college completion gaps than non-HSIs. There has been a tremendous growth of HSIs and enrollment of Latinx students in those institutions. It’s a population that merits more attention and more funding to be able to adequately address racial disparities.

Felix: HBCUs have been doing amazing work with limited resources in terms of the ways that they graduate not just Black students but all students. They educate a high proportion of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals in fields that the Black community has been excluded from. Being able to provide more resources to expand enrollment or develop new programs would be great.

TCUs are a system that’s been under the radar. Many times, our reforms render invisible Native communities. It’s of utmost importance to put resources behind the institutions that explicitly serve, validate, and support Indigenous communities. It’s not just about graduating students but creating a curriculum and an education rooted in Indigenous culture, history, and sovereignty.

Q: How might life be different for undocumented students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients under the Biden administration?

Anguiano: Biden signed a memorandum to preserve and fortify DACA on his first day in office. He has pledged to ensure that DREAMers are eligible for financial aid. His plans to provide two years of free tuition at community colleges and HBCUs, TCUs, and other MSIs include eligibility for DACA recipients. Those are meaningful steps for people who have lived in the shadows, have been vilified for the past four years, and have really lived in an incredible amount of fear.

Felix: Nominating a refugee, Alejandro Mayorkas, to run the Department of Homeland Security is a clear indication that Biden is tapping into community cultural wealth. Restoring DACA means support for DREAMers, which is great, but similar to Promise programs, that is such a small sliver of the entire undocumented community in higher education and the nation.

Q: What might change for international students?

Felix: Biden’s repeal of the “Muslim ban” and his memorandum combating racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders can help rebuild our image with the international community and allow more students to attend US colleges and universities.

It’s going to take a couple of years for the international community to feel like the United States is a safe place to send their kids. I used to work in admissions, and I would try to comfort parents of international students and let them know that the institution, state, and community would be safe places for their students to be successful and grow. There needs to be a level of outreach to demonstrate that this country wants international students here.

Anguiano: Congress may give colleges the discretion to determine which students—including international students—get emergency grants. That would be different from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, because the Trump administration issued an interim final rule that excluded undocumented and international students from being eligible to receive emergency grants.

Q: What changes might we see to Title IX and campus sexual assault policy?

Felix: A more robust Title IX that is really about gender equity—where women and trans students can feel safe on campus—has to try to end campus violence as we know it. First, the Biden administration must undo the most recent guidelines that were passed in spring 2020 and were required to be implemented in August, which focused more on due process for accused offenders and weakened protections for survivors. Then, the administration needs to have the conversation about dismantling campus-based sexual violence rather than just trying to adjudicate it.

Q: How might new higher education policies affect educators’ ability to address racial and other disparities on campuses?

Felix: The previous administration’s executive actions limited conversations and trainings on diversity, critical race theory, and White privilege and made institutions fearful of having conversations about race.

The Biden administration can expand rather than curtail these efforts by developing memoranda, executive orders, or reforms that allow colleges and universities to consider how our institutions have clearly benefited from the marginalization of so many communities and the ways that we need to atone for those inequities. Slave labor and exploited labor were used to build institutions on Indigenous land. That trickles into who was able to go to college and who wasn’t, and who has wealth and who doesn’t. All of that still plays out today.

I’m not sure how far back the Biden administration wants to go in addressing these racial inequities. But they didn’t arise yesterday. They’re systemic issues in the values and underlying ideologies of higher education institutions. A lot of institutions were about exclusion, about making sure that White, affluent men were able to get educated so they could perpetuate a system where they were the ruling class. We need to understand the ways white supremacy continues to perpetuate racial inequities in higher education.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

Felix: If Biden is building off of the College for All Act, he should consider ways to fund the mandate of having at least 75 percent of instruction come from tenure-track faculty. It’s a great idea on paper, but it is extremely costly and does not align with lowering the cost of college. I hope that is given further consideration so that adjunct faculty have economic security and a living wage. Adjuncts go from one college to another, piecing together their teaching load to be able to survive. Students can’t get the type of education they deserve because the faculty members are just trying to make ends meet.

Anguiano: One thing worth noting is that the Biden administration has made a lot of personnel picks that are racially and gender conscious at the highest levels. That’s an indication that this administration highly values equity and opportunity for all Americans. I think that will translate into more equitable policies that serve the most vulnerable people in American life.

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Learn More

Biden’s Executive Orders: click here

The American Rescue Plan: click here

The Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School: click here


  • Emily Schuster

    Emily Schuster is co-editor-in-chief of Liberal Education and senior editor at AAC&U.