Can Bidens restore a nation’s confidence in college?

Free tuition proposals could help the economy recover from COVID recession, former college president says
By: | November 16, 2020
(GettyImages/Courtney Hale)

Incoming First Lady Jill Biden’s role as a community college professor has some hoping the new administration and its support of free college can rebuild the nation’s confidence in higher ed.

The president-elect’s higher ed platform calls for free tuition at community colleges. The Biden-Harris administration also wants to make public, four-year colleges free for families earning under $125,000 a year and has express support for student debt forgiveness.

These initiatives could help the nation recover from COVID’s economic impacts by putting more Americans back on the path toward gainful employment, says Lynn C. Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“We hope this new administration will help to restore public trust in higher education by demonstrating the ways in which colleges and universities continue to be most the powerful catalysts for social and economic mobility,” says Pasquerella, the former president of Mount Holyoke University.


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A key to reducing the funding burden on states would be Biden’s plan to double Pell Grant funding, and allow recipients to use the money to pay for living expenses.

College leaders are hoping another COVID relief package—to the tune of $120 billlion—will be passed before the end of the year or shortly after Biden is inaugurated.

“One of the things we learned from COVID-19 was not only the expansiveness of the digital divide but also the food and shelter insecurities experienced by so many students across the country, at all types of institutions,” she says.

Title IX and free speech

Many institutions are hoping to see a revision or outright repeal of the new Title IX sexual assault rules enacted earlier this year by DeVos.

Obama-era Title IX policies had become so onerous that colleges and universities couldn’t complete investigations and “weren’t serving anybody,” Pasquerella says.

But administrators have also struggled with new regulations that allow the accused and their lawyers to question the alleged victims as part of the college’s investigation.

“It’s an overreach on the part of government to mandate that somebody accused of sex assault has right to have a lawyer present and to question the accuser in a college setting,” she says. “That belongs in the courts and it would deter people from coming forward.”


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Campus leaders are also looking the incoming administration to loosen visa restrictions that have made it more difficult for some international studies to study in the U.S., she says.

And she accused the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education of overreach in threatening to withhold funding from colleges and K-12 schools over the teaching of subjects that show the U.S. in a bad light—such as Middle Eastern studies and teaching the 1619 Slavery Project.

“In their attempt to bolster protection of speech, they’ve protected only a particular type of speech,” she says. “I think the Biden administration will be quite different in allowing more autonomy among colleges and universities while upholding principles of freedom of expression.”