Joe Biden Has College Plan, Definitely Has Word 'College' In It!
Joe Biden yesterday released a higher education plan focused on strengthening community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions, and workforce training. The central features include making public community college tuition-free to all students enrolled in a two-year program and tweaks to Pell Grant and student loan programs that would make college more affordable.
The Biden plan is decidedly more modest than proposals from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro, who all call for federal support for free tuition at four-year state colleges and universities. Instead, Biden's plan builds on Barack Obama's second-term community college proposal, from around the time Sanders was talking free college for everybody. We were originally planning on saying Biden wants to Make America 2015 Again, but Biden's proposal does have good ideas in it -- and may be more likely to actually get passed. And it is a ton better than what we have now. Let's dig in!
The Biden plan sure starts out sounding like it's going to be looking at the need for expanded access to all of higher education, citing "today's increasingly globalized and technology-driven economy," where 12 years of public school is simply not enough for "American workers to remain competitive and earn a middle class income." The answer, says Biden, is community colleges, which, as a former community college teacher, I can totally get behind as an important thing, but I'm not sure they're the "bold plan" for higher education this proposal suggests.
Yes, yes, we get that Jill Biden has taught community college in Virginia forever and helped develop the plan. But there's no two ways about it: Two years of federally funded community college falls way short of addressing the higher education needs of all students. Biden emphasizes the practicality of community colleges in job training, noting that
today in the United States there are an estimated 30 million quality jobs, with an average salary of $55,000, that don't require a bachelor's degree.
And yes, there is a lot to be said for students getting their first two years of a bachelor's degree done at no cost to them at a community college, with smaller class sizes and more direct interaction with instructors, then transferring to a four-year public institution to finish. Another good part of the proposal: The free tuition offer would be available to Dreamers, kids who were brought to the US without documentation when they were children, so that's nice. Also, as with the 2015 Obama proposal, the free tuition wouldn't just be for recent high school grads, but also for adults seeking to upgrade their education or job skills. Beyond that, Biden wants another $50 billion for job training, including apprenticeships, which is all to the good.
In addition to the tuition, Biden calls for federal investments in community college infrastructure and programs to ensure student success, including grants to schools to beef up advising, dual enrollment, faculty recruitment, and the like.
Like most of the D candidates, Biden would expand federal support for HBCUs and other institutions that primarily serve minority students, like tribal colleges and universities, with a total of $70 billion going to a variety of programs aimed at serving students who might otherwise not get a shot at a higher education. That would include infrastructure, lab, and IT upgrades, and the creation of
200 new centers of excellence that serve as research incubators and connect students underrepresented in fields critical to our nation's future – including fields tackling climate change, globalization, inequality, health disparities, and cancer – to learning and career opportunities.
We also like some of Biden's ideas for college financial aid, which have appeared in other candidates' higher ed plans. He would double the amount of Pell Grants and index future grant amounts to inflation, and would allow students to use their grants for college costs beyond tuition and fees.
On student loans, Biden takes a less aggressive position than Warren and Sanders, who would both just outright pay off big chunks (or all) of student debt. Hey, whoever gets the nomination, any student debt relief would be good, and if Congress won't get behind outright forgiveness, Biden's proposal could be a good fallback.
Beyond expanding Pell grants and nudging more students toward community colleges to prevent student debt piling up, Biden would automatically enroll everyone with federal student loans into an income-based repayment plan, instead of requiring them to apply for it. The terms of income-based repayment would also become more generous, with folks making under $25,000 a year exempt from making payments, and no interest accruing on the debt.
Everyone else will pay 5% of their discretionary income (income minus taxes and essential spending like housing and food) over $25,000 toward their loans. This plan will save millions of Americans thousands of dollars a year. After 20 years, the remainder of the loans for people who have responsibly made payments through the program will be 100% forgiven.
It ain't total debt relief, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we have now, and as we've mentioned before, anything that reduces Americans' anxiety over student loan debt would probably have public health benefits, since a frightening number of people think about killing themselves over their impossible student debts, and some actually do. What a country!
Biden would also beef up debt forgiveness for people working in public service and nonprofits, again making the program automatic for those who qualify, and fixing the Department of Education hurdles that have resulted in an insanely low rate of student loan forgiveness -- in 2018, only 96 people out of 28,000 applicants actually had their loans forgiven.
Biden's stance on for-profit colleges, the worst grifters in higher ed, seems disappointing. Several Dems say they would cut off federal aid to for-profit schools altogether, but Biden would "require for-profits to first prove their value to the US Department of Education before gaining eligibility for federal aid." The devil would be in the details; given how crappy most of those places are, perhaps that would be the same as disqualifying them anyway. Biden would also reinstitute loan forgiveness for people ripped off by for-profit schools, another Obama-era initiative that's been largely gutted under Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
On the whole, in a campaign where progressive candidates have far more ambitious plans to revamp higher education and make it more accessible, Biden's plan sounds like the sort of thing someone running in, say, 2008 might have called for. There are some nice ideas here, but we're not sure they'll be bringing anyone to march in the street to support them. Biden isn't big on people marching anyway.
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