Implications of the 2020 Presidential Election for Federal Higher Education Policy

By Rebecca S. Natow

The 2020 presidential election is upon us, and regardless of whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden prevails, this election will have significant implications for higher education policy. Whomever is sworn in on January 20, 2021, will lead the executive branch during a time of public health emergencyeconomic downturn, and political polarization both in Congress and across the electorate. Our next president will also be facing a higher education sector that is badly hurting from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student enrollments and institutional budgets.

Over the next four years, the president will have the opportunity to influence federal higher education policy in a profound way, whether through issuing executive actions, appointing agency leadership, or introducing and signing legislation. Who wins this year’s election holds implications for several key higher education policy areas, including support for higher education institutions, college affordability and student financial aid, and federal nondiscrimination policies.

Support for Different Types of Higher Education Institutions

There are several different types of higher education institutions, and some sectors are likely to fare better under a Trump administration while others may fare better under a Biden administration.

For-Profit Institutions

President Trump and Vice President Biden favor very different policies toward for-profit higher education. During the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, the US Department of Education issued a series of regulations that primarily affected the for-profit sector. The most prominent such regulation was the Gainful Employment rule. First issued in 2011, the rule set forth a series of disclosure requirements and accountability metrics for career-based higher education programs. A successful court challenge by a for-profit higher education association gutted the rule, but the Obama administration initiated the rulemaking process again and issued another Gainful Employment rule in 2014. President Obama’s Department of Education also issued the Borrower Defense rule in 2016 to provide a process for student loan discharge for debtors found to have been defrauded or provided with misinformation by their higher education institution. Inside Higher Education reported at the time that this rule had been “drafted with the for-profit sector in mind,” but with “potentially wider repercussions affecting public and private nonprofit institutions.”

President Trump and Vice President Biden favor very different policies toward for-profit higher education.

Conversely, about a year into the Trump administration, the US Department of Education began the rulemaking process to significantly deregulate for-profit higher education. In 2019, the Trump administration repealed the Obama-era Gainful Employment rule and substantially modified the Borrower Defense rule, thereby relaxing some of the regulations on for-profit higher education. President Trump’s Department of Education also issued a final rule providing for greater flexibility in distance education, a regulation that was applauded by a for-profit sector association leader. It should be noted that this regulation was issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the Department of Education had previously issued waivers allowing institutions greater flexibility for providing remote education. However, given the new importance distance learning is playing in education, it is more likely the case that these new regulations will now be welcomed by nonprofit and public institutions as well.

If President Trump is reelected, his administration’s policies of limited regulation of the for-profit sector are likely to continue. These policies were enacted in the recent past by the Department of Education under his administration and his campaign has not given any indication of a desire to change course. Vice President Biden, on the other hand, says that if elected, his administration “will require for-profits to first prove their value to the U.S. Department of Education before gaining eligibility for federal aid.” His campaign has also indicated a desire to bring back the Obama-era Borrower Defense rule. Thus, regulation of the for-profit sector and other career-based higher education programs is likely to increase if Vice President Biden is elected.

Community Colleges

Although there are few indicators of how federal policy on community colleges may change if President Trump is reelected, the Biden campaign has indicated the former vice president has plans for providing additional funding opportunities for community colleges. Former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden has taught in community colleges for many years and has said she plans to continue doing so if she were to become first lady. As such, Dr. Biden and Vice President Biden were advocates for community colleges during the Obama administration. Plans released by the Biden campaign indicate that the former vice president would like to increase funding for community colleges if he is elected through plans for tuition-free community college and grants to enhance student services.

Although there are few indicators of how federal policy on community colleges may change if President Trump is reelected, the Biden campaign has indicated the former vice president has plans for providing additional funding opportunities for community colleges.

Minority-Serving Institutions

Minority-serving institutions (MSIs)—such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander serving institutions (AANAPISIs)—provide higher education to large numbers of historically underserved and underrepresented students and receive financial support from the federal government through the Higher Education Act. Regardless of who wins this November’s election, both President Trump and former Vice President Biden are likely to continue federal support for MSIs. As president, Trump signed the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act, which provided permanent federal funding for MSIs through the Higher Education Act. Early in his term, President Trump also signed an executive order creating a White House Initiative on HBCUs within the Executive Office of the President. The function of the initiative is to “work with agencies, private-sector employers, educational associations, philanthropic organizations, and other partners to increase the capacity of HBCUs to provide the highest quality education to an increasing number of students.” Additionally, the Trump administration’s Department of Education forgave hundreds of millions of dollars in hurricane relief loans HBCUs had borrowed as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Former Vice President Biden has indicated that, if elected, he would also continue federal support for MSIs, with plans for additional funding for these institutions to develop research centers, technology labs and other facilities, enhanced student services, and tuition coverage for students transferring into an MSI from community colleges, among other things.

College Affordability and Student Financial Aid

The federal government provides over $120 billion annually in student financial aid to more than 13 million students. Both President Trump and Vice President Biden have made federal student aid an important component of the 2020 campaign. As president, Trump signed legislation (as part of the FUTURE Act) simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Trump also signed the coronavirus relief bill (known as the CARES Act), which—among many other things―provided emergency student aid grants and other funding for higher education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth noting that despite the financial provisions of the CARES Act for higher education, the pandemic’s total financial costs to the industry are likely to be much higher―in a September 2020 letter sent to the leadership of the House of Representatives, higher education advocacy groups asked for federal financial support in the amount of $120 billion, at minimum.

As described in an August 2020 presidential memorandum, President Trump further “took [executive] action to provide immediate relief to tens of millions of student loan borrowers during the pandemic caused by COVID-19 by both suspending loan payments and temporarily setting interest rates to 0 percent.” The president’s campaign has highlighted his administration’s implementation of year-round Pell Grants and reform of federal student loan servicing “to improve customer experience and lower costs.” President Trump also advanced policies on student financial aid for veterans and active duty military by signing the “Forever GI Bill” and issuing a presidential memorandum forgiving debt from student loans for veterans who are totally and permanently disabled. But as explained above, Trump’s Department of Education made changes to the Borrower Defense rule, and those changes made it more difficult for student veterans and others to have their student loans forgiven in the event of alleged fraud or misrepresentation. Although Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to rescind the new rule―a resolution that was supported by veterans’ advocates―Trump vetoed that resolution, leaving the rule disfavored by veterans’ advocates in place.

In his most recent annual budget proposal to Congress, President Trump proposed expanding Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs and incarcerated students. But he did not propose expanding Pell Grant award amounts, something that the American Council on Education criticized. Trump also proposed cutting Federal Work Study funding, eliminating the Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grant, and discontinuing the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program. Trump had proposed similar funding cuts to these programs in previous budget proposals. According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the president’s proposed cuts to Federal Work Study in the most recent budget proposal would have been a 58 percent reduction in funding.

Vice President Biden’s campaign website contains several new policy proposals regarding student financial aid and college affordability. In addition to his tuition-free community college plan described above, Biden has proposed tuition-free public college for undergraduate students whose family incomes are less than $125,000―a policy proposal borrowed from Biden’s former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, and one that shares its conceptual structure with New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program. The former vice president also has proposed increasing the Pell Grant award, reforming the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness program to allow up to five years of loan forgiveness at a rate of $10,000 per year, and allowing DREAMers—young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children—to be eligible for federal student financial aid. Biden also has plans to allow adjunct faculty members who work in higher education institutions to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness and to make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings.

Regardless of whether President Trump or Vice President Biden wins this year’s presidential election, the successful passage of a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization will likely depend more upon the outcome of congressional elections as well as negotiation and bargaining among policymakers in 2021 and beyond. The Higher Education Act (HEA)—a comprehensive federal law that authorizes (among other things) federal student financial aid programs—has not been reauthorized since 2008, and a reauthorization is currently well overdue. Because federal student aid programs are a key component of the HEA, a reauthorization could serve as a vehicle for enacting the president’s policy proposals regarding student financial aid. If and when the next reauthorization occurs, and what new financial aid policies it may contain, will depend not only on who wins the presidential election but also on the outcomes of congressional elections. Currently, there is divided party control of Congress—that is, Democrats control the House of Representatives and Republicans control the Senate—presenting challenges to the negotiation and passage of a comprehensive HEA reauthorization. Should the outcome of the 2020 elections be such that the same party will be in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, an HEA reauthorization becomes more likely. But even then, the two major parties have to work out policy disagreements on higher education within their own caucuses before an HEA reauthorization would pass. In 2017-18, the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and there was movement in the House Education and the Workforce Committee on an HEA reauthorization bill, but Congress did not pass a comprehensive reauthorization at that time. If Democrats win control of the presidency and both houses of Congress following the 2020 elections, they too would need to resolve intraparty differences on such matters as tuition-free college and other higher education policies before an HEA reauthorization would occur.

Regardless of whether President Trump or Vice President Biden wins this year’s presidential election, the successful passage of a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization will likely depend more upon the outcome of congressional elections as well as negotiation and bargaining among policymakers in 2021 and beyond.

Federal Nondiscrimination Policies

Colleges and universities that receive federal funding—and nearly 6,000 institutions do so through federal student financial aid programs—must agree to abide by a number of federal nondiscrimination policies, including the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 (known simply as “Title IX,” which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programming). President Trump and Vice President Biden hold different policy positions on some aspects of federal nondiscrimination policies. During the Obama administration, the US Department of Education issued subregulatory guidance on the implementation of Title IX, with regard to student conduct hearings in cases alleging sexual assault. President Trump’s Department of Education revoked that Obama-era guidance and went through the rulemaking process to codify its new Title IX policy as a regulation. One change the new regulation has made from the Obama-era guidance is to permit institutions to use a higher standard of proof in sexual assault hearings. The Obama administration’s guidance instructed institutions to use the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires just over 50 percent likelihood of guilt. But the new regulation permits institutions to use a “clear and convincing” evidence standard, which requires a finding of substantial likelihood of guilt. Vice President Biden has said that as president he would seek to restore Obama’s Title IX policies as part of his broader plans to combat violence against women. Biden also indicated he would restore different Obama-era Title IX guidance—also revoked by the Trump administration—that provided transgender students with access to restrooms, sports, and changing facilities that align with their gender identity.

Vice President Biden would also likely implement different policies than President Trump on issues such as affirmative action and race-conscious college admissions. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew guidance issued by the Obama administration regarding the use of race-conscious college admissions policies that were designed to encourage the diversification of  student bodies. Additionally, Trump’s Department of Justice has investigated individual higher education institutions, including Harvard and Yale, to determine whether federal nondiscrimination policies had been violated by the institutions’ consideration of an applicant’s race as a factor in admissions decisions. Vice President Biden has a history of supporting such affirmative action policies and has indicated he would restore the guidance issued under the Obama administration regarding race-conscious college admissions.

Biden and Trump also differ on matters relating to immigration and diversity training. International student enrollments in higher education have declined during the Trump administration, which institutions have indicated was due in no small part to difficulty obtaining student visas. Moreover, the Trump administration ceased accepting new applications for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had offered work authorizations and protection from deportation to undocumented young people who had come to the United States as children. Biden has said he would restore the Obama-era DACA program. Biden would also in all likelihood repeal Trump’s recent executive order prohibiting certain kinds of diversity training by federal contractors, including higher education institutions that receive federal contracts and grants. During the September 2020 presidential debate, Biden criticized the executive order, indicating that diversity training is important to raise awareness of systemic racism.


This analysis highlights only some of the many ways this year’s presidential election is likely to influence the future of higher education. Today’s environment is characterized by a polarized government, an economy in recession, and a global pandemic, all of which have affected higher education in profound ways that merit policy attention. Regardless of which presidential candidate prevails on election day, the next four years undoubtedly will be an interesting and significant time for federal higher education policy.


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.