Universities challenge Biden over graduate employment focus

After long run focusing on lowering student costs, president eyeing re-election shifts towards conservative-favoured vision of job-centred educational goals

February 24, 2023
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the latest jobs report to illustrate Universities challenge Biden over graduate employment focus
Source: Getty

US higher education is bracing for tougher political challenges from the Biden administration, which is positioning itself for re-election with broad new promises to crack down on the use of private suppliers and to fight low-quality academic programmes.

The administration’s moves so far mainly take the form of statements and formal requests for feedback. Those requests, however, suggest the possibility of fundamentally major intrusions into institutional operations from an administration preparing a more job-focused educational agenda after finding limited success with 2020 campaign promises to make college more affordable.

In a formal submission of its planned regulatory changes – rules that can be implemented without congressional approval – the department proposed reviving an Obama-era ratings system.

“The clear model is in gainful employment,” said Jonathan Fansmith, senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE), the main US higher education lobby group, referring to the regulations established in 2015 after prolonged legal fights and then rescinded by the Trump administration. That framework threatened a loss of federal aid at career-oriented institutions – largely in the for-profit sector – that left their students with more debt than their post-training salaries could reasonably cover.

The new Biden proposal, however, suggests extending the concept to all higher education, by calculating and publishing value-based rankings of academic offerings. The initiative doesn’t directly threaten cut-offs in federal support for poorly rated offerings, but the talk of even that much governmental involvement is generating alarm at traditional institutions.

“There’s a lot of concern about this,” Mr Fansmith said. “It starts with the fact that the department has very, very limited data to make some of these determinations. And then you get into the fact that a lot of the choices made in building such a system will predetermine the outcomes you see, in ways that can have very misleading consequences.”

Similarly, the Biden administration’s focus on outside vendors originates in a longstanding wariness among Democrats about for-profit abuses that it now wants to apply to higher education more generally. The department has suggested it is most concerned about private companies that specialise in student recruitment aimed at helping institutions maximise their income from federal student aid.

Its initial proposed language, however, appears far more expansive than that, said Mr Fansmith. “The department,” he told ACE members, “is proposing to expand that definition, more broadly, really to capture any entity that works with an institution on recruiting students to a programme.”

The overall Biden approach may reflect political realities, some analysts said, but at the potential cost of policymakers forgetting that higher education should mean more than just the starting salaries that graduates can find in the workplace.

“This is a tortuously narrow way of understanding the value of higher education,” said Jack Schneider, associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“I find it surprising,” said John Thelin, emeritus professor of educational policy at the University of Kentucky, “that a Democratic or left-leaning administration would want to fall into the reductionist fallacy that a particular degree programme at a particular college that does not demonstrate job placement is necessarily suspect.”

Yet, according to Michelle Dimino, deputy director of education at the Third Way thinktank, there was also room for generating broad improvements in quality assurance. “Insufficient transparency and zero accountability for institutions have made students wary about the value of college,” she said.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs