President-elect Joseph Biden has already put forth some of his agenda for higher education, and media have focused on calls for the incoming president to cancel student debt as a response to the pandemic. Biden has not announced where he stands on canceling all student debt, but he has championed other student-centered proposals. He reportedly promised to double the top amount of Pell Grants, a move welcomed by NYPIRG Program Director Megan Ahearn, who said, “The current maximum Pell Grant covers the lowest share of four-year public college costs in more than 40 years.” Biden’s campaign promised to “[m]ake public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000” and to create “a new grant program to assist community colleges in improving their students’ success.” His higher education plan would offer “two years of community college without debt,” which he says “will immediately offer individuals a way to become work-ready with a two-year degree or an industry certification,” and his plan “will also halve their tuition costs for obtaining a four-year degree, by earning an associate’s degree and then transferring those credits to a four-year college or university.”
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All these ideas will work to make college more affordable. But does the Biden plan offer enough in terms of funding higher education? PSC President Barbara Bowen was among the higher education advocates who have presented ideas on the subject to the Biden transition team. Bowen focused on increased federal support for public colleges and universities and on ending the contingent labor system.
“Few issues during the campaign generated as much excitement as free college tuition and ending the massive nationwide student debt,” said Bowen. “To be close to seeing that become reality is huge. But if the new administration does not devote equal energy to ending the nationwide disinvestment in public colleges, it will be addressing half of the problem. The second half is investment in colleges themselves – and specifically, financial and regulatory incentives to end the atrocious system of contingent labor.” Bowen added that Biden ran in part on his strong support for labor and that he has a chance to think big: Ending the adjunct labor system by investing adequately in public colleges would be a landmark labor accomplishment as well as a transformative event for college workers and students.
Bowen has worked for several years with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), where she is a vice president, to develop proposals for increased federal funding for higher education to counteract the massive disinvestment by state governments. Unlike finvestment in K-12 education, federal funding for higher ed comes mainly in the form of direct grants to students, not as support for the colleges themselves. The AFT has called for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which would include the creation of “a new grant program to provide resources to public institutions that serve high numbers and percentages of Pell Grant-eligible students.” The program would be “similar to K-12 education’s Title I grant, which is designed to improve basic programs.” Biden has embraced this proposal.
The Young Invincibles, an organization which, along with the PSC, is a member of CUNY Rising, published a policy paper laying out a higher education agenda for the new administration’s first 100 days. The agenda calls on Biden to expand his plan for free tuition at public colleges and universities, declaring free tuition should apply “regardless of income, citizenship status or criminal record.”
The group said the new Congress should push for a “federal-state partnership program that improves educational opportunities, particularly for students with limited financial capacity.” AAUP President Irene Mulvey also offered ideas to the Biden transition team and focused on issues similar to those Bowen raised: “We support a national movement to increase wages for adjunct faculty in contingent positions. Most are paid literally poverty-level wages. College and university administrations should be held accountable for their employment practices. We are deeply concerned that in the post-pandemic world, higher education will be offered on the backs of contingent faculty. Institutions must be disincentivized from exploiting contingent faculty.”
Mulvey added that “higher education has been eroded to a very large degree over the last 10-20 years and that, in general, restoring funding of public higher education must be a top priority.”