US election: academic hope tempered by realism as Biden wins

Higher education leaders celebrate change in tone but recognise political limits

November 7, 2020
White House

Joe Biden has claimed victory in the US presidential race, heralding a revival of investment in and respect for higher education, and reversals of Trump administration antagonisms towards international students.

Mr Biden won 74 million votes to 70 million for President Trump, and with them – after a tense wait of several days – took the necessary majority share of support through nation’s state-by-state Electoral College system.

The former vice-president will take office in January having long campaigned on promises to make college more affordable. But the extent to which he can fulfil that and other commitments likely will be limited if the Republicans manage to keep control of the Senate.

Either way, university leaders said the victory gave a badly needed boost to the idea that civilised societies depended on an educated populace and fact-based examination of challenges.

“Our country”, said Anne Houtman, the president of Indiana’s Earlham College, “desperately needs more civil discourse, a better sense of our shared humanity, more critical thinking, and a better understanding and appreciation of science.

“These are the gifts of higher education, and we need them now more than ever.”

The US and its educators also needed to contend with the reality that so many of its citizens supported Mr Trump, said Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas.

“While we are moving forward with a new president,” Dr Sorrell said, in anticipation of a final declaration in the race, “I worry what it means for my country that so many people found comfort and strength in the former president’s message of intolerance and hate.”

As for concrete policy changes arising from the new administration, experts expected that Mr Biden will have to find ways of helping students and reviving trust in global cooperation without the help of Congress.

Mr Biden’s chief higher education proposal – free tuition at two-year institutions, and free four-year attendance for students from families earning less than $125,000 (£100,000) a year – looked unlikely if Republicans hold the Senate, said Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University who advised the Biden campaign.

The two-year portion may enjoy enough bipartisan support to make progress at the federal level, especially given the number of states that have created such programmes, Dr Gautney said.

The four-year extension might be possible, she said, only if Mr Biden felt it important enough to engage in extensive negotiations involving trading priorities important to Republicans, such as defence spending.

“Everybody has a price,” Dr Gautney said. “I just don’t know where that lies on the hierarchy of priorities.”

In a nation with deep political divisions, said Tamara Hiler, the director of education policy at the thinktank Third Way, Mr Biden was not expected to push immediately on complicated issues such as free college.

“The Biden folks are not going to want to have free college the very first conversation that they are having,” Ms Hiler said.

More immediately, with the political complications of the election out of the way, Congress was expected to approve billions of dollars in pandemic-related aid for various business sectors including higher education.

That should be only the start of the federal government effort to help colleges and universities – and the states that fund them – recover from the economic damage of the coronavirus, said F. King Alexander, the president of Oregon State University.

“Our nation’s governors are pleading for additional federal support,” Dr Alexander said.

As president, Mr Biden also was expected to take a range of actions sought by academic leaders that do not require congressional approval, many of them involving the reversal of Trump administration moves.

They include ending the threat of deportation facing hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers”, the youth brought to the US illegally by their immigrants parents; cancelling loan debt owed by students of colleges found to have defrauded them; and tightening regulations on for-profit colleges.

“There’s a lot that can be done without Congress,” said Antoinette Flores, the director of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress.

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