Here is what the midterms mean for higher education | Higher Ed Policy – Inside Higher Ed | Team Cansler

The midterm elections are finally over. It is becoming increasingly clear that Democrats will control the Senate while Republicans will will control the house. While Democrats have beaten expectations, the next Congress will be less supportive of President Biden’s legislative agenda. This has significant consequences for higher education policy. Understanding these implications can help college leaders prepare for the next two years.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has made significant strides in helping students and institutions recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration passed the American bailout plan, which almost called for it 40 billion dollars to institutions to meet the needs of students and launched a National Hunger, Nutrition and Health Strategy, which could significantly reduce food insecurity across college campuses. These measures, along with the government’s decision to forgive millions of borrowers up to $20,000 in student debt, demonstrated a commitment to advance large-scale, federal solutions to higher education’s biggest problems.

But the Biden administration’s efforts to help students and institutions are incomplete. The administration was unable to make it community college free of charge nationwide, a key policy of Biden’s presidential campaign. And while the Biden administration has passed policies designed to help students meet their basic needs, the insecurity of basic needs continues to threaten one’s academic and spiritual well-being alarming number by college students. Likewise, the Biden administration provided colleges with the resources they needed to weather the pandemic, but in the thick of it sustained enrollment declines, many colleges – especially community colleges– need federal funding more than ever.

To address the most pressing issues facing higher education — such as the college affordability crisis, increasing uncertainty about student basic needs, and the sharp decline in college enrollment — Congress must pass additional legislation. However, higher education cannot count on a newly divided Congress to pass legislation capable of serving the moment. Democrats and Republicans disagree whether the government should provide more funding to colleges, since most Republicans believe students — not the federal government — should fund their own routes to college. Even if Congress does find a bipartisan agreement on some issues related to higher education, it is unlikely that Congress will allocate additional resources to colleges to meet the major challenges they face.

Still, there is a silver lining to this year’s midterm elections. First, the Biden administration can use executive branch power to help students afford their basic needs without having to rely on Congress. By reviewing and reforming regulations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), SNAP, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and Medicaid, the Biden administration is able to advance numerous policies that can help students meet their basic needs. When government lowers the cost of food, housing, transportation, and health care for students, they can have a positive impact on higher education without passing legislation.

Second, there have been positive outcomes for higher education at the state and local levels. Democrats won major gubernatorial elections and took control in critical swing state lawmakers. These findings could create opportunities to advance higher education policy at the state level. This is particularly promising given the increase in recent state politics who made community college tuition-free for millions of Americans. Because of this, states now have blueprints to pass bipartisan bills that can reduce college costs, which is a promising avenue for promoting educational equity and economic mobility.

In light of the new federal policy landscape, there are two important lessons for university leaders:

Advocate for policy changes at state and local levels

Given the success of recent government measures to reduce higher education costs, as well as the new federal and state political landscapes, higher education leaders should champion policies that promote educational equity and economic mobility at the state and local levels. College leaders can learn from bipartisan efforts to get college cheaper in Michigan to inform their own advocacy groups. Given the midterm results, there is both a greater need and a greater opportunity to drive change at the state and local levels, and college leaders should capitalize on it.

Connect programs to workforce needs

Despite the likely standstill in Congress, there is bipartisan support for college programs addressing labor needs. The renewed focus on labor shortages since the onset of COVID-19 has increased support for workforce development initiatives. While higher education does far more than address labor shortages, college leaders can leverage bipartisan support for workforce development and training initiatives by emphasizing the benefits of their programs to workers. In this way, university leaders can gain political support for their work, which could help drive the necessary university policies.

While the midterms may bring Congress to a standstill, there are ways to promote equity in higher education through state, local, and executive action. University leaders can – and should – play an important role in making these opportunities a reality.

Chris Geary is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Education & Labor at New America, where he focuses on the intersection of higher education and labor policy. Previously, Chris was a Policy Analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, a Policy Fellow in the New Orleans Mayor’s Office, and a public school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisggeary

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