After four years of controversial actions taken by a controversial Secretary of Education, the Biden Administration has its work cut out for it when it comes to higher education. In the last 3 months alone, the DeVos Administration rescinded Clery guidance and implemented sweeping regulatory changes to Title IX. DACA and international students live in a state of confusion as to whether they will be allowed to return to their college campuses. Institutions’ budgets are in shambles due to lack of auxiliary funds and cuts in state spending as related to the coronavirus.
How then should the next Secretary of Education prioritize their postsecondary education policy agenda?
Obviously, the most urgent matter at hand is equipping colleges and universities to combat COVID-19 on their campuses. Biden’s Coronavirus Taskforce must allocate resources to help cash-strapped institutions to keep their campuses safe through testing, PPE, and quarantining. Furthermore, now that campuses are grappling with the second virus-related crisis in just over a decade (H1N1-2009), the Department of Education should also partner with the taskforce to issue guidance on how college campuses should be preparing to respond to such emergency situations.
Still, other matters warrant attention.
With 44.4 million Americans owing student debt totaling more than $1.6T in the middle of an economic crisis, addressing this issue must take precedent after COVID-19. President Elect Biden’s policy agenda already includes forgiving $10,000 in student loan debt to those who attended public universities and HCBUs, forecasted to reduce the nation’s student loan debt by a third. However, this leaves student borrowers attending private universities, who on average owe $5,700 more than students who attend public universities, out in the cold. Moreover, even though private loans only account for 7.87% of student debt, it still adds up to close to $132B. The Biden Administration must create debt relief for students with private loans. . . that won’t break the banks.
The urgent pivot to online learning and Zoom classrooms by colleges and universities this past spring highlights the need to reevaluate privacy concerns in the education space. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, protects students’ educational records but the classification of such records is limited to grades, student conduct information, and personally identifiable information. FERPA is not inclusive of technology beyond protecting email addresses and the contents of an electronic grade book. The incoming secretary must prioritize expanding educational privacy laws to include data/metadata captured in an online learning space, including images captured, or the ability to refuse to be captured, through video conferencing services.
Despite the widespread adoption of LMSs across the postsecondary education for close to two decades now, online learning as a primary method of delivery is still considered less reputable. Until now. Over the past few months faculty and administrators have simultaneously learned about both the utility of online learning, and their severe lack of understanding of how to harness that utility. The Department of Education must invest time and resources by initiating a blue-ribbon committee to determine the efficacy of online learning as a dynamic education delivery method and partner with CAS to determine industry best practices.
Colleges and universities scrambled to be in compliance with the new Title IX regulations, released in early May, by August 14th. The new regulations, poorly received by victim’s advocates and experts in the field, rescind the majority of the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter’s guidance. Whereas a return to the Obama-era interpretation of the law will most likely be welcomed by many on college campuses, the Biden Administration should tread lightly. Institutions’ work to become compliant in a three-month timeframe has come at a great cost to institutions during a time when time and financial resources are incredibly limited. Another quick shift in regulatory requirements, even if compliance officers anticipate changes upon Biden’s election, is likely to cause an undue regulatory burden and campus culture whiplash. Furthermore, the DeVos Administration’s lengthy preamble to the new Title IX regulations “shows their work” in regards to the justification of the new rules, making legal challenges to the new regs cumbersome. If the new Secretary of Education seeks to amend Title IX yet again, they should proceed with caution.
Whereas there is much work to be done, the Biden Administration should fight the temptation to overturn or rescind the work done by Secretary DeVos’ Department of Education. Postsecondary education has undergone a tremendous amount of stress over the past four years. Any significant or sudden changes will simply frustrate already overtaxed educators and students.