The results of the U.S. presidential election suggest that there will be a significant transformation in the way the nation is governed, even though the political divide in government will continue. This should have significant repercussions for education. Mike Goldstein, a distinguished higher education consultant, and attorney, offers his insights on how the presidential election will alter the course of higher education.

Changing Directions

President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for higher education promises to strengthen college as a reliable path to the middle class. While Republicans and Democrats will probably agree with this in general principle, they may differ on what is intended and how to go about accomplishing this lofty goal.

There are two components of this: one where agreement may be found, and one where there will be disagreement. The first is a general acceptance that education—and especially higher education–has to be faster, better, and less expensive. However, the second, that higher education needs to be more accessible to people of color, first-generation college students, and those from lower-income backgrounds, although less than generally accepted, is becoming more and more recognized as important. To do so means more than reducing the cost of education; it means doing more not just to admit these students, but to help them get their education and earn the credential that will lead to a better life.

The credential / degree also has to be meaningful for employers. This will not only cause changes to higher education programs, but also require alterations to counseling, admissions, and tutoring to help students through the program. Additionally, the traditional disconnect continues between what is taught in higher education and what is needed in the workforce by employers.

Faculty overwhelmingly believe they are preparing students for the workforce. However, only about 40% of employers believe that students are prepared for jobs when they graduate. That disconnect has been in existence for a while. Stakeholders are beginning to realize that this gap was created because higher education and the business community were not communicating about what is needed, how to make what is needed become part of the curriculum, and the role that business should play in working with higher education to ensure that students are ready and successful in the workforce. The incoming administration plans to address these issues by providing paid internships, degree-related on-the-job training, pathways, and sequences of courses that support specific areas of study.

Talent Supply Chain

One could argue that a course should be a set of stackable credentials while a degree should be a pile of stackable credentials that add up to the set of competencies that also equate a degree of some sort. The degree is actually the aggregation of a set of marketable competencies. This was the premise behind Western Governors’ University.

That’s where we are now heading. In the Biden Administration, expect to see the leaders in the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Labor working in conjunction with one another to develop these kinds of programs.

There needs to be a consensus about what higher education is trying to do – both its purpose and how it gets accomplished. This includes accessibility, affordability, improving student aid programs, and reducing the debt burden on all students, and recognition that today’s student isn’t the same as it has been in the past. Another critical problem is that at the current cost, the debt burden hits middle-class students. The president-elect’s plan for higher education probably will address this issue.

Expanding Access

President-elect Biden’s platform has several components to expand access. This includes making enrollment in community colleges or similar training organizations debt-free. This would include reduced tuition along with state and/or federal grants. The president-elect’s proposal calls for 75% federal funding, which will depend on receiving Congressional support. The premise of free two-year education to get an associate’s degree is important for the country’s future.

He also places a high priority on supporting minority-serving institutions that serve Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. HBCUs are important institutions because they provide exceptional service, and students get a high-quality education in an extremely supportive environment. These institutions also influence other minority-serving institutions.

Many state and city colleges were founded on the basis of providing access to education to everyone, including the City of New York institutions which were founded and gave free tuition to students. We’ve lost that for reasons that were not in control of the educators, but now there is a movement to return to the notion that education for all beyond high school should be affordable.

Additionally, it’s important that people who enroll in college be able to complete their education. The average student is no longer 18; now the average student is an adult who has responsibilities for children, aging parents, and work. This requires counseling, childcare, and other types of support, all of which require additional funding.

Title IX Changes

Many changes to Title IX are projected to be rolled back. The Trump Administration got it partly right on Title IX because there was an imbalance in protections. Institutions lacked appropriate guidance on how to deal with abuse and discrimination.

The problem was that the Department of Education flipped it in the opposite direction. There is a balance to be struck—one has to protect the rights of individuals who suffer from sexual misconduct, abuse, or discrimination while also ensuring that the process is fair. Institutions are currently badly equipped in having the necessary human resources to support the process.

The incoming administration will focus on coming up with a balanced system that gives institutions the tools to properly administer the law and these programs. The regulations are designed to flesh out what is a legal obligation. This administration will be much more sensitive to ensuring the protection of the person who has suffered while also ensuring that the process is fair and expeditious.

Jurisdiction is still questionable. There is a limit as to how much authority an institution should exercise over its population. The question that needs to be asked is what the responsibility would be for an employer whose employee engages in this type of conduct outside of the workplace. This should be handled in a similar manner in a university. If a student engages in misconduct off-campus, this should be a civil issue. If the misconduct is morally repugnant, the institution should be in its right to dismiss the student. However, institutions should not be held responsible for every student at all times. If students are off-campus and not under the responsibility of the institution when they engage in bad conduct, the enforcement becomes a slippery slope.

Predatory For-Profit Institutions

It is anticipated that the Biden Administration will be more active in pursuing predatory for-profit colleges. The critical word is “predatory”; any institution that acts inappropriately misrepresents what it is doing, or fails to properly safeguard the use of federal funds or provide the educational service it promises should suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, the poster child for this type of conduct has been for-profit institutions, and nearly all of the worst offenders are no longer with us. For the most part, for-profit colleges play an important role in training students in areas such as cosmetology, welding, etc., and there is a place for those in higher education.

The emphasis should be that every institution, including for-profit colleges, behave properly and work within the rules. Where they do not, students should be protected from harm. If a school suddenly folds, the students should have recourse. The rules should be applied evenly and enforced in relation to recruitment, finances, etc. When they do not, the government should ensure that students can take appropriate action. However, the Trump administration walked away from enforcement.

Additional Financial Areas

The 90/10 rule (at least 10% of tuition needs to be derived from non-federal student aid sources) has many proposals currently being brought forward. This rule is indicative of the socio-economic class of students being served; however, it may not be a good indicator to use to determine the quality of education.

A critical issue will be CARES Act 3. There currently needs to be a large infusion of funds awarded to the states and higher education institutions. This funding is needed to sustain these institutions through the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, which may stretch out for a year. A number of private colleges were in a weakened state going into the pandemic and now they are teetering on the brink. The federal government needs to protect these institutions, which otherwise would cause great disruption to higher education.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

Goldstein suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders and boards:

  • Think faster, better, and cheaper. How can you improve the quality of education and the way it’s delivered? Also, find a way to reduce the cost of education while providing other sources of support.
  • Make the system fairer and more accessible. Education needs to meet the needs of a changing population of students and need to figure out ways to help these various students, whether they are coal miners or immigrants.
  • We need to go back to the idea that seeking higher education is a public good.

Bullet Points

  • The presidential election will change the course of higher education policy.
  • Higher education needs to transform to be faster, better, and less expensive.
  • There needs to be increasing acceptance that higher education needs to be more accessible to people of color, first-generation college students, and those from lower-income backgrounds.
  • Higher education credentials need to be meaningful for employers. To make this happen will changes to higher education programs, but also require alterations to counseling, admissions, and tutoring to help students as they make their way through the program.
  • A course should be a set of micro-credentials while a degree should be a pile of stackable certificates that add up to the set of competencies that also equate to a degree of some sort. The degree is actually the aggregation of a set of marketable competencies / credentials.
  • There needs to be a consensus of what higher education is trying to do. This includes accessibility, affordability, improving student aid programs, and reducing the debt burden on all students.
  • The president-elect’s platform includes making enrollment in community colleges or similar training organizations debt-free. This would include reduced tuition along with state and/or federal grants.
  • The incoming administration also places a high priority on supporting minority-serving institutions that serve Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
  • It’s important that people who enroll in college be able to complete their education. The average student is no longer 18-24; now the average student is an adult who has responsibilities for children, aging parents, and work. They need different types of support to help them earn a degree.
  • The incoming administration will focus on developing a balanced system that gives institutions the tools to properly administrator Title IX. This administration also will be much more sensitive to ensuring the protection of the person who has suffered while also ensuring that the process is fair and expeditious.
  • It is anticipated that the Biden Administration will be more active in pursuing predatory colleges and universities that act inappropriately, misrepresent what they are doing, or fail to properly safeguard the use of federal funds or provide the educational service promised.
  • A critical issue moving forward will be the passage of CARES Act 3. There needs to be a large infusion of funds awarded to the states and higher education institutions. This funding is needed to sustain higher education institutions through the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, which may stretch out for a year.

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