Will 2020 election thrust higher ed into the spotlight?

'If you're constantly dealing with crisis management, there's not much time left for a big plan'

Higher ed may get more attention from Washington than K-12 after the next election, regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is elected president, says one expert.

While colleges and universities may get assistance from another COVID relief package, there may also be momentum to reauthorize the Higher Education Act—particularly if Democrats take control of the Senate, says Jon Bernstein, an education, technology and communications lobbyist who is president of the Bernstein Strategy Group.

As for the next stimulus bill, the most immediate concern could be community colleges, smaller private institutions and regional state schools, where enrollment numbers have been hit harder by the COVID economic crisis, he says.

“We’re seeing a lot of stories out there about smaller less-branded institutions that are really suffering but I don’t know if there’s a federal role in trying to save them,” says Bernstein, who is also executive director of the National Coalition for Technology in Education & Training. “There are still a lot of kids who want to go to college, and it’s not going to help if we have bankruptcies.”

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Secretaries of education do not often stay for a second term, and Betsy DeVos has made no indications of her plans if Trump is re-elected. If she leaves, Trump could appoint someone from within the department, Bernstein says.

The Biden campaign has been tight-lipped about potential cabinet picks, but Bernstein says the Democrat, if elected, could tap someone with higher education experience.

“If you’re a Democrat, there are issues with college costs and debt relief, and issues with regulations that DeVos has rewritten,” Bernstein says. “A lot of colleges have not implemented those changes, and if Biden wins, it may be about restoring stability and trust while grappling with the double economic and public health emergency.”

The regulations revamped by DeVos include changes to Title IX, stricter gainful employment standards and less oversight of for-profit institutions. A Biden administration would be likely to undo those changes, returning to Obama-era higher ed policies.

If the Senate remains under Republican control, leaders there have talked about reducing federal funding for majors that they believe are less economically viable.

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Policymakers in 2021 and beyond will also have to respond to the growing acceptance of online learning by students, particularly working adults, who see it as a cheaper, more convenient alternative, Bernstein says.

“This coronavirus is surfacing some cracks in higher ed but it’s also surfacing some important revelations about how education can and should work,” he says. “What we’re learning is that one size doesn’t fit every kid. ”

Ultimately, a continuing pandemic and the economic fallout could preclude any sweeping education initiatives by the next administration, Bernstein says.

“If you’re constantly dealing with crisis management, there’s not much time left for a big plan,” he says. “Job one is righting the ship.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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