Higher Education Policy Implications of President Biden’s First 100 Days

By Rebecca S. Natow

The early weeks of a new president’s term offers the opportunity to advance a realigned policy agenda from the previous administration and establish a clear narrative on presidential priorities, so it is not unexpected that there has been an intense focus on the actions and accomplishments of President Joe Biden in his first three months in office. Given the ongoing public health crisis and extreme economic and social challenges, some experts say that President Joe Biden’s first 100 days may be the most crucial for any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President Biden did not shy away from immediately setting the course of his presidency, issuing significant executive orders and initiating legislative actions, including Day One executive orders to reverse many policies of the Trump administration and delivering the massive economic stimulus package of the American Rescue Plan.

Biden’s first few months as president offered important implications for higher education, too, while other federal policy interventions championed by various advocates have not yet occurred. This blog post provides an assessment of the higher education-related policies, proposals, and appointments that occurred in the first 100 days of the Biden administration and offers a perspective on those that might yet come.

Executive Orders

From the first day of his presidency, Biden issued a series of executive orders that impacted higher education. His Day One executive orders included the revocation of President Trump’s executive order banning certain kinds of diversity training for federal contractors, which had prompted some to alter their training practices. Another Day One executive order stated that Biden administration policy will recognize gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and similar nondiscrimination statutes—including Title IX—and ordered federal agencies to review and consider amending rules and guidance that do not align with this policy. On his second day in office, President Biden issued an executive order requiring the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to develop additional guidance on the safe reopening and operations of schools and colleges amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. (This executive order was issued with others relating to the pandemic upon the release of a White House strategy report on “the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness.”)

Another higher education-related executive order issued during Biden’s first 100 days was a mandate to the Department of Homeland Security to “preserve and fortify” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a policy that began during the Obama administration and provides protection from deportation and work permits for some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors, often called “Dreamers.”

Another Day One executive order stated that Biden administration policy will recognize gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and similar nondiscrimination statutes…

Finally, in March, Biden also ordered the Department of Education to review existing rules and guidance, including the Title IX regulation that was released last year, to determine whether it is consistent with Biden administration policy on sex and gender-identity discrimination in education and, if not, to consider revising those policies. Although the Day One executive order on nondiscrimination mentioned above applies to Title IX, the March executive order is a direct instruction to the Department of Education to begin the process of review and (likely) revision of Title IX regulations and guidance.

The American Families Plan: A Boon for Higher Education

On April 27, the president’s ninety-eighth day in office, Biden unveiled his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, a proposal that included substantial funding and policy enhancements for higher education. The more than $290 billion in the proposal for higher education includes:

  • $109 billion for two years of tuition for students attending community college (including Dreamers), in fulfillment of one of Biden’s signature campaign promises regarding higher education.
  • $80 billion to increase the maximum need-based Pell Grant award by $1,400, or nearly 22 percent, from the current maximum of $6,495 to $7,895. (This amount is in addition to the $400 Pell Grant increase Biden proposed in his discretionary budget request, discussed below.) Dreamers would be included among students eligible for the grant.
  • $62 billion in grants to colleges and universities for programs designed to enhance student retention and completion.
  • $39 billion for two years of tuition subsidies for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) whose annual family income is under $125,000.

The proposed plan also includes more than $1 billion for teacher preparation programs, including those at MSIs and those preparing special education teachers, and doubling the federal scholarship for future teachers, from $4,000 to $8,000.

The fate of these and other elements of President Biden’s American Families Plan in Congress remains uncertain.

Presidential Appointments: Setting the Long-Term Direction for Higher Ed Policy

As the incoming president, Biden is empowered to appoint personnel to important posts within the federal government that are charged with carrying out his long-term policy vision. This of course includes the secretary of the Department of Education, who becomes a member of his cabinet. Additional high-level Department of Education officials, including the deputy secretary, the under secretary, and various assistant secretaries, were also appointed by President Biden. The background, experience, and policy positions of these appointees set the tone for the types of policies they and the President are likely to pursue during their time in office.

Biden’s Department of Education appointments suggest his administration will pursue policies that protect student loan borrowers, increase accountability of for-profit higher education, and develop Title IX policies that resemble those of the Obama administration. Biden’s secretary of education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, was Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education when he was selected to serve as secretary. Cardona is a strong proponent of public education, and though his previous experience was mainly in K-12 education, he has argued that higher education should be more accessible and affordable. As commissioner, Cardona sought collaborations between K-12 schools and colleges to promote access to higher education.

Biden’s Department of Education appointments suggest his administration will pursue policies that protect student loan borrowers, increase accountability of for-profit higher education, and develop Title IX policies that resemble those of the Obama administration.

Biden also appointed James Kvaal to the post of under secretary of education, a high-ranking position that oversees the Department’s postsecondary education policies. Kvaal, who has been critical of for-profit higher education, was the deputy domestic policy advisor in the Obama White House, and more recently held the position of president of the Institute for College Access and Success. In both roles, Kvaal worked to promote policies that would expand access to higher education for underserved student populations. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Kvaal voiced support for state-federal partnerships to make higher education more affordable.

Other Biden appointees to the Department of Education include: Michelle Asha Cooper, former president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and an advocate for higher education equity, as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education; Suzanne Goldberg, a former Columbia University administrator and critic of Trump-era Title IX policy, as acting assistant secretary for civil rights; Rich Williams, who previously worked on consumer protection policies for college students at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), as chief of staff in the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education; and Ben Miller, who was a vice president at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, as senior advisor to the Department’s chief of staff.

Beyond the Department of Education, Biden appointed other key federal personnel whose decisions are likely to influence higher education policy. For example, Biden selected Rohit Chopra to lead the CFPB. Chopra, who served on the Federal Trade Commission and was previously an ombudsman at the CFPB, was called a “strong advocate for student loan borrowers” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Moreover, Biden appointed Peter Sung Ohr as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In his previous role as the Chicago regional director for the NLRB, Ohr ruled that college football players should be entitled to unionize.

By the end of President Biden’s first 100 days in office, however, the Senate has formally confirmed only Miguel Cardona as secretary of Education, causing some to wonder if the delay in confirming other appointees might impede implementation of the President’s higher education policy agenda.

Federal Agency Actions

Federal agencies have also taken a number of actions during Biden’s first 100 days that affect higher education. For example, in late April 2021, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will extend the guidance issued in March 2020 that, because of public health concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic, allows schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to continue to engage in distance learning beyond traditional regulatory limits.

The Department of Education has also taken action that affects higher education. At the request of the President, the Department continued the interest-free pause on student loan repayments through September 30, 2021. This loan-repayment pause was initiated (and later extended) by former President Donald Trump in Spring 2020 to help address some of the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Ordered by the President, the Department also announced that it would review existing Title IX rules and likely begin a process for creating new regulations to revise them. As part of its review, the Department has asked for public comments on stakeholder experiences and other factors the agency should consider when reviewing the rules.

In March 2021, the Department announced it will amend the Borrower Defense Rule’s debt relief formula for student borrowers whose institutions were found to have defrauded them. Unlike the Trump administration’s formula, which granted only partial relief, Biden’s new Department of Education policy will grant full debt relief to qualified borrowers.

At the request of the President, the Department [of Education] continued the interest-free pause on student loan repayments through September 30, 2021.

Also during Biden’s first 100 days, a Department of Education advisory board recommended that the agency cease recognizing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), an accrediting body of mainly for-profit colleges, including some that have gone out of business after financial mismanagement and ethically questionable operations. Federal law requires that institutions receiving federal student aid funds under Title IV of the Higher Education Act be accredited by an organization approved by the Department of Education, with recommendations for approval coming from an advisory body known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). In 2016, the Department stopped recognizing ACICS following a recommendation from NACIQI; however, after a court ruling found that the Department’s decision was procedurally flawed, the Department—under the leadership of President Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos—again recognized the accreditor. During Biden’s first week as president, career personnel at the Department of Education asked the new administration to again cease recognizing ACICS as an approved accreditor, and following a public meeting in March 2021, NACIQI again recommended that the Department end its approval of ACICS. It is believed that Secretary Cardona is likely to follow NACIQI’s recommendation.

Higher Education in The American Rescue Plan

Although major legislation can be difficult to enact in a heavily polarized Congress, the American Rescue Plan—a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill—was signed into law by President Biden in March 2021. The legislation was designed to provide financial assistance and stimulate the economy following the devastating economic and public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among its many provisions, the American Rescue Plan contained $40 billion in funding for higher education emergency relief. Acknowledging this and billions more allocated for K-12 education and other programs, the National Education Association said this legislation “represents the single largest investment ever in public education.”

Among its many provisions, the American Rescue Plan contained $40 billion in funding for higher education emergency relief.

At least 50 percent of the funding for higher education provided in the American Rescue Plan must be used to fund student grants. Combining higher education funding from the American Rescue Plan with funding from last spring’s CARES Act and December’s supplemental relief plan, higher education has received a total of more than $76 billion in pandemic-related stimulus funding from the federal government since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Other higher education provisions in American Rescue Plan include:

The American Rescue Plan also provides about $350 billion in funding for local, state, and tribal governments, which is expected to enable some state governments to maintain their current levels of funding for higher education. The statute contains a maintenance of effort policy for state governments to maintain funding levels for higher education as a condition for receiving federal funds under the Act.

The President’s Annual Budget Request

Although the budget and appropriations process is a complicated one that must include the passage of legislation by both houses of Congress, the President’s budget request serves as an important signal of White House policy priorities. In his first annual budget request, Biden has asked for a 41 percent increase in funding for the US Department of Education over the previous year’s budget, totaling $102.8 billion for the agency this year. Biden also requested funding for a number of higher education policies and programs, including the following:

  • A $400 increase in the maximum award for the Pell Grant. The President’s budget proposal would also make DACA students eligible for the Pell Grant.
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance “institutional capacity and student supports” at community colleges, “low-resourced institutions,” and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
  • $20 million for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Engagement to increase representation of under-represented students in STEM fields via partnerships with higher education institutions.
  • Billions of dollars for research and development, including for public health/medical, climate, agricultural, and STEM research.

Legislative Proposals

In addition to his budget request and the American Families Plan described above, President Biden has sent Congress other legislative proposals that have implications for higher education. On the first day of his presidency, Biden submitted the US Citizenship Act, a bill that would reform immigration policy by, among other things, providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers (including DACA registrants) and other undocumented immigrants. Other higher-ed provisions of the bill include: the provision of green cards to international PhD graduates in STEM fields; the repeal of a federal policy that limits states’ ability to provide in-state college tuition rates, which tend to be considerably lower than out-of-state tuition rates, to undocumented students; and, an amendment to the Higher Education Act that would require public colleges and universities to charge in-state tuition rates to refugees, asylees, and others with “special immigrant status.”

…higher education has received a total of more than $76 billion in pandemic-related stimulus funding from the federal government since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Biden also sent to Congress his proposed American Jobs Plan, which would invest approximately $2 trillion over ten years in infrastructure, research and development, and workforce development. Included in this plan, the President seeks $12 billion for community colleges to invest in technology and other infrastructure such as capital projects and building. Community college advocates have observed that long-term underfunding of these institutions has inhibited the development of new buildings, facilities, and other infrastructure on community college campuses. Biden’s infrastructure plan would reverse that trend.

The American Jobs Plan would also provide $48 billion for “workforce development infrastructure and worker protection,” including apprenticeship programs, pathway programs to bring under-represented students into STEM fields, computer science, and other high-demand jobs, and partnerships with community colleges to provide workforce training. Additionally, the bill allocates $180 billion for research and development, which includes funding for climate research “demonstration projects” and upgrades for labs, computing facilities, and other “research infrastructure,” particularly at MSIs. Finally, the American Jobs Plan also would develop a national laboratory to partner with an HBCU to conduct climate research and provide funding for “research incubators” at MSIs. The American Jobs Plan’s provision for universal broadband access would also benefit colleges and college students across the US, particularly in rural areas and those with limited resources.

What Hasn’t Happened … Yet

Although much has happened with higher education policy during Biden’s first 100 days, there are still a number of actions that have not yet occurred. Since well before Inauguration Day, student advocates and progressive policymakers have called for the widespread cancellation of student loan debt, which currently totals over $1.7 trillion nationwide. But during his first 100 days, Biden resisted using executive action to forgive student loans. At a town hall televised on CNN in February, a participant asked the President, “What will you do to make [at least $50,000 in student loan forgiveness] happen?” Biden’s response: “I will not make that happen.” He added that he may be prepared to cancel $10,000 per student. Then in April 2021, Biden’s chief of staff said that the President had asked the Department of Education to review and advise as to his authority to forgive student loan debt via executive action. But Biden did not take any action regarding student loan cancellation during his first 100 days.

Also, while the higher education lobby and progressive advocates have increasingly called for doubling the amount of the Pell Grant, Biden’s first annual budget request asked for a $400 increase in addition to the $1,400 increase proposed as part of his American Families Plan. This increase, while significant, still leaves advocates of doubling the Pell Grant award hoping Biden will support further increases in the near future. For example, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities heralded Biden’s discretionary budget request “as part of its commitment to doubling the maximum grant,” and added that the organization “hope[s] to see the doubling of the maximum Pell award in” future Biden policy proposals. Others have argued that the Pell Grant should be expanded to enable students to use Pell funds to pay for short-term postsecondary training and job-skills development programs.

Finally, the $76 billion in coronavirus stimulus funding that the higher education sector has thus far received from the federal government is considerable. But it is still not enough to cover pandemic-related financial losses, according to higher education lobbyists. In Fall 2020, the sector asked the federal government for $120 billion in stimulus funds. This March, the American Council on Education estimated that higher education would need approximately $97 billion to recoup COVID-related losses. The total sum the sector has received so far is tens of billions of dollars less than that amount.

It is still quite early in the Biden presidency, so there is plenty of time for more major higher education policymaking to occur. But if the first 100 days is a guide, the Biden administration’s plans for higher education include more funding (particularly for community colleges, MSIs, and research and development), strengthening Title IX and immigration policies to resemble those of the Obama administration, and a focus on making higher education more affordable. Biden is also seeking to incentivize research, especially with regard to climate science, health research, agriculture, and the STEM fields.

In just a few short months, President Biden has taken a large number of actions that are likely to affect higher education for years to come.


Rebecca S. Natow is a Richard P. Nathan public policy fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University.