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Making Higher Education Great Again

By: Glenn C. Altschuler And David Wippman, Opinion Contributors, The Hill

Nationwide — As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to name his secretary of education, it seems like a good time to offer the new administration a higher education to do list. Admittedly, getting legislation through a highly partisan, closely divided Congress will be difficult, but the new secretary and president can — and should — use executive orders to eliminate harmful policies, initiate reforms, and change the conversation about higher education.

Pandemic relief — While higher education as a whole has fared better than generally feared, many colleges and universities are in grave financial danger. Faced with declining enrollment, higher financial aid costs, drops in auxiliary revenues, cuts in state funding, and sharp increases in pandemic-related spending, they have drained their reserves, frozen or cut salaries and benefits, laid off or furloughed large numbers of employees, trimmed majors and programs, and taken on new debt. CARES Act funding provided some relief in the spring, but much more is needed. Concerned about an impending “crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude,” the American Council on Education has urged Congress to allocate $120 billion for higher education. Securing that help must be job number one for the new education secretary.

Student debt — While most students graduate with “little or no debt,” some 45 million borrowers collectively owe more than $1.6 trillion, more than triple the amount owed in 2007. For many graduates, a high debt burden constrains career choices, delays decisions to marry, have children, or buy a home, and limits the ability to save for retirement. In March, President Trump suspended student loan payments, but that forbearance is scheduled to end on Jan. 31. While many Democrats have urged Biden to forgive billions in student debt, the President-elect has taken a more cautious approach, promising to cancel $10,000 per borrower as a form of economic stimulus, with more comprehensive relief for particular categories of borrowers. Biden has also proposed doubling the maximum size of Pell grants and making “public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000.” Biden’s approach seems to us a reasonable opening gambit.

For-profit colleges — Critics accuse the for-profit college sector of enticing students into expensive but poorly designed degree programs with minimal career prospects. In 2019, the Department of Education modified rules governing borrower defenses to repayment and took other steps to make it harder than ever for defrauded students to secure relief. The Biden administration should reverse those changes and tighten accreditation rules to ensure students who find themselves the victims of educational fraud are not left without recourse.

Sexual misconduct — In 2011, then Vice President Biden played a major role in the Obama administration’s drive to ensure more rigorous campus enforcement of sexual assault rules, culminating in the now famous “Dear Colleague” letter outlining how the Department of Education would assess compliance with Title IX, a 1972 statute prohibiting “discrimination based on sex in education programs.” During her tenure Education Secretary Betsy DeVos championed new regulations intended to restore balance to a system she believed favored accusers. A one size fits all system modeled on the court room­­, with lawyers and cross examination of witnesses allowed, the new mandates are expensive, burdensome, and likely to deter many victims of sexual assault from going through the process. As we have argued elsewhere, efforts to address sexual assault should include reforms to a civil system that is often slow, costly, and, for those who cannot afford it, ultimately fruitless — as well as reforms to a criminal justice system in which only a very small percentage of cases results in convictions.

International students — Once the world’s premier destination for international students, the United States saw a modest decline in international student enrollment in fall 2019, the first in over ten years, and a 16 percent drop in fall 2020. While the pandemic accounts for much of this fall’s drop, lackluster growth in recent years can be attributed in significant part to a series of actions by the Trump administration that have rendered the United States a far less hospitable venue for international students. The new secretary of education can help rebuild America’s stature as a home for the world’s best and brightest students. Biden has already promised to preserve the protections against deportation of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children contained in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and to repeal the ban on travelers from several mostly Muslim countries. The new administration should also eliminate proposed constraints on an international student’s “duration of status,” which undermine confidence that they can complete their education in the United States in the time allowed, shore up the Optional Practical Training program, which enables international students to gain work experience, and withdraw proposed rules making it harder to obtain H-1B visas (and much more expensive for employers to hire highly skilled foreign workers).

As helpful as these steps would be, nothing would do more to secure our position as the world’s higher education leader than a bipartisan reform of an immigration system no one likes — to include measures that provide greater security and certainty for international students and migrants alike.

Race relations on campus — The new secretary of education should begin to address the continuing impact of racism in colleges and universities by dropping recent demands that Yale cease any consideration of race in admissions, withdrawing support for the legal challenge to affirmative action at Harvard, and ending the investigation of Princeton for simply acknowledging the continuing effects of systemic racism on its campus. Similarly, the Biden administration should repeal the recent Executive Order on Race and Sex Stereotyping, which imposes unwarranted constraints on antiracism training at federal agencies. Most important, the new secretary of education should use his or her bully pulpit to make equal access to higher education a reality for students from economically disadvantaged families and underrepresented minority groups.

We recognize that this agenda is ambitious, especially in the midst of a pandemic and a severe economic recession.

That said, we are convinced these are urgently necessary first steps if we are to ensure economic prosperity, make equal opportunity a reality, and restore higher education to its stature as the envy of the world.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

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