Virtually everything that matters seems to be on the ballot this year, from the economy to democracy to “the soul of the nation.” And there’s a real choice, since the two major-party candidates for president have presented two starkly divergent visions for all of those things. But voters are also casting their ballots for another important issue that could shape the country for generations to come: the future of higher education.
“We’re about to see the beginning of a transformation of higher education in America,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “COVID is just the kickoff.” Indeed, the current economic and public health crises have caused a great deal of financial strain on many colleges and universities across the country. Some institutions will not survive; others will have to deal with issues that have been brewing below the surface for a while: costs and funding, student loan debt, transparency, and more.
For the many crises colleges and universities are facing, a Biden presidency — and a Democrat-controlled Senate — would be a step in the right direction. The most immediate challenge for institutions of higher learning is making it to the other side of the pandemic. And as colleges face budget cuts from their state governments, Republicans are stalling on a second coronavirus relief package that would send crucial federal aid to states for these institutions. The GOP’s unwillingness to act, and President Trump’s inability to reach a deal, is putting colleges and universities at risk of shutting down.
As for students, if all its elements are passed, Joe Biden’s plan to make colleges more affordable, for example, would increase access to higher learning, ease student loan debt, and help stimulate the economy in the long run by creating a more highly educated workforce. Trump’s plan, on the other hand, would repeal regulations around for-profit colleges, many of which take advantage of poor and vulnerable populations, and make it harder for low-income students to pursue higher education. This editorial board has already endorsed Joe Biden for president; the issue of higher education underscores why.
Trump did sign a bill that cemented funding for historically Black colleges and universities. But while that funding helped alleviate some financial woes for HBCUs, it simply isn’t enough in the long term. (It should also be noted that while Trump often touts his record on HBCUs as evidence that he’s “done more for the Black community than any other president,” annual federal funding for HBCUs actually peaked under the Obama administration.) In contrast, Biden has proposed tuition-free access to HBCUs for families making under $125,000 a year, and forgiving student loan debt to graduates of these institutions.
Biden could push through some of his agenda, even with a Republican-controlled Congress; there is some bipartisan interest in higher-education reform. But it’s clear that he could get far more done if Democrats hold the House in the coming election and win the Senate. Senate Republicans have proposed only $29 billion for colleges and universities to navigate the economic crisis — a figure that advocates have called “woefully inadequate” — while Senate Democrats have proposed $132 billion. That difference in the scale of federal aid would have dramatic consequences for the trajectory of many of these institutions. Control of the Senate could also have implications for undocumented students, who Senate Democrats want to make eligible for emergency grants, a proposal that Republicans have so far rejected.
Many Republicans also believe that the best way to handle the issue of student debt is to let the market take care of it. “What is so awful about that is that it will have predictive effects by class and race,” Carnevale said.
Biden’s student debt plans are far from perfect. While they help ease debt in the long term by making college more affordable, they don’t alleviate the biggest strains on most graduates who already have loans. But a Democratic Congress could push a President Biden further.
Higher education, like so many other industries, is facing a critical moment. Whatever policies will be enacted in the coming years will be consequential for the future of the economy, people’s day-to-day lives, and the pursuit of scholarship for intellectual enrichment. Democrats and Republicans are offering two very different visions, and in the next week, voters will decide which path to take. The choice is clear.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.