President Biden’s higher education policy doesn’t hold up

President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address last Tuesday attempted to soothe a nation beset by crises at home and abroad. The soaring rhetoric that earned the president standing ovations and the occasional heckler also briefly mentioned his education policy. Biden said that the government should “increase Pell grants and increase our historic support for HBCUs…and invest in America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.” 

If the president’s speech outlined his vision for the future, the picture I saw of U.S. college education was hazy at best. Biden offered funding for students and schools and not much more. While his proposed programs are undoubtedly important, Biden’s agenda can and must go further. After Congress scrapped a truly transformative proposal for free four-year community college in October 2021, Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona have yet to apply the full extent of the Department of Education’s power. Biden’s barebones agenda ignores both the policy and politics of education to the detriment of colleges, their students and their staff. 

Biden’s Department of Education has already had a huge impact on U.S. higher education. Billions of dollars’ worth of COVID-19-related relief funds in the American Rescue Plan went to support colleges and universities, including GW. Biden has also imposed a moratorium on student loans, extending it several times past its original end date amid other action.

And increased Pell grants and investment in community colleges and HBCUs, like the District’s own Howard University, would have a positive impact for hundreds of thousands of college students across the country. But these proposals seem small and readily achievable. Reducing students’ tuition costs through expanded Pell grants and providing vague support for HBCUs and community colleges is hardly a long-term vision: it’s an objective that could and should be achieved in a single piece of legislation. 

Many of the initial and far bolder policy ideas that motivated Biden’s campaign and early presidency have already fallen flat. Free community college and more progressive plans to unilaterally cancel all student debt quickly died without support from Congress. 

Whether the president’s reduced ambitions are a result of his limited political vision or thinly-stretched political capital, Biden’s educational policy lacks a broader strategic goal. There’s little planning beyond getting students back in schools as the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully subsides. Biden’s comprehensive view of education amounts to a meager to-do list rather than an enterprising vision of the future.

Perhaps Biden and Cardona haven’t been able to outline a future in a world that seems ever-changing. But what do their respective offices require if not precisely that? Biden’s popular mandate gives him and by extent Cardona the right to govern, but they are governing without a fully articulated vision. This lack of a unified, long-term ideological vision plagues the Democratic party at large and it’s a particularly pernicious problem here. 

Biden and Cardona should ensure colleges and universities provide their debt-saddled students with something beyond a diploma and college-educated elite status. They have an opportunity to make American higher education more affordable and accessible – if only they would seize it. 

Biden’s and Cardona’s predecessors in former President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos understood the might of the Department of Education. DeVos, a crusader for school choice and religious education, acted like the political appointee she was. She rescinded Obama-era guidance meant to protect transgender students, repealed separate guidance meant to counter racial disparities in school discipline, and oversaw new Title IX-related regulations that some critics saw as unfairly favoring college students accused of sexual misconduct. DeVos also made the process of obtaining college student loan debt forgiveness much more difficult. 

DeVos undeniably harmed the Department of Education and the people it was meant to serve in pursuit of her partisan agenda, but she thoroughly applied the full force of her agency to do so. Cardona ought to do the same, just to different ends. While Cardona’s moderate approach of big-spending federalism is preferable to the damage DeVos left behind, it leaves much to be desired. 

A Department of Education that only fulfills its most basic function as a multibillion dollar piggy bank fails college students and their institutions. It’s not enough to keep the apparatus of the Department of Education running: students, staff and institutions need new and bold ideas to address skyrocketing tuition costs, crippling debt and low pay. 

I know Biden and Cardona must believe something: the president’s speech was more than empty bluster and applause lines. There’s a smacking of racial justice implicit in the president’s support for HBCUs, but it’s unclear if, or how, he’ll tease this thread into actual policy. And Biden appears passionate about protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, many of whom are overwhelmingly younger and of college age. 

If Biden and Cardona act with even half as much fervor as DeVos to translate their words into action and articulate their vision, they’ll have realized a new idea of a more diverse, equitable and perhaps even affordable system of higher education in the United States. 

Perhaps Biden’s appeal was in his calm, moderate, middle-of-the-road approach to politics. But in trying to offer something for everyone, the government’s higher education policy has come up short. Amid bold and exciting visions for the future, the president launched an uninspired and barebones agenda as if it were an afterthought. 

The president can do, and Americans deserve, better. To quote Biden himself, “C’mon, man!” 

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.

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