Advertisement

The Biden Administration’s First 100 Days: A Milestone for Higher Education?

min read

What have we seen in President Joe Biden's first 100 days in office, and what does that suggest for colleges and universities moving forward?

The Biden Administration’s First 100 Days: A Milestone for Higher Education?
Credit: gguy / Shutterstock.com © 2021

Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, incoming US presidents have touted the "first 100 days" of their administrations. They highlight that timeframe as a period of major change during which they will drive through key policy priorities and set the tone for their remaining years in office. The administration of President Joe Biden has been no exception. It has welcomed comparisons with FDR, whose presidency was also shaped by national crises and bold plans to address them.

For EDUCAUSE members, where and how the new presidential administration has focused on higher education during its first 100 days is especially important, as the pandemic continues to create challenges and impact not only students but also institutions and the communities they serve. What have we seen in these 100 days (ending on April 30), and what does that suggest for colleges and universities moving forward?

Answering those questions requires us to first review a key development that occurred toward the end of the preceding administration—the passage in late December 2020 of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), which provided $21 billion in aid to higher education institutions in general, split roughly between institutional aid and emergency grants to students.Footnote1 Colleges and universities welcomed this infusion of relief funding, the first since the approximately $13 billion in general higher education aid (also split between institutions and students) provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed in March 2020.Footnote2 However, the higher education community estimated that $120 billion in lost revenue and additional expenses as a result of the pandemic had accumulated across colleges and universities by December 2020.Footnote3 As a result, CRSSA's $21 billion in financial support, while a definite improvement over CARES, left higher education institutions and their students still in need of significant help.

Roughly six weeks after taking office, the Biden administration and Congress signaled an active interest in addressing higher education's ongoing needs by agreeing to provide $36 billion in additional financial relief to colleges and universities (again split between institutions and students). While still well short of the amount of aid requested, the combined total of $57 billion provided some measure of hope that institutions could weather the financial impact of the pandemic. Perhaps equally as important, the American Rescue Plan Act allocated $350 billion in relief funding for state and local governments, which will likely go a long way toward offsetting the state and local funding cuts that public college and university leaders had anticipated.Footnote4

This latest round of pandemic relief funding is important because it is the last pandemic relief aid that colleges and universities are likely to see as the Biden administration and Congress turn to economic recovery measures. This is not to say that higher education won't benefit from the proposed American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. The American Jobs Plan proposes a $12 billion investment in community college infrastructure as well as $180 billion in increased research spending, which is expected to generate a large volume of research grants to higher education institutions. Meanwhile, the proposals for higher education in the American Families Plan include, among other provisions, $109 billion to make community colleges tuition-free, $80 billion to allow for a $1,400 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, and $39 billion to provide two years of free tuition at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).Footnote5 In addition, the president's FY22 budget outline, which had been released earlier in April, already called for a $400 increase in the maximum Pell Grant.Footnote6 If Congress ultimately approves both the FY22 budget and the increases in the American Families Plan, the size of the maximum Pell Grant would grow 28 percent: from $6,495 (for 2021–2022) to $8,295. This would be a good step toward the administration's goal of doubling the maximum Pell Grant.

Of course, the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan, and the FY22 budget are still simply legislative proposals and not yet law. Even if Democrats use the Senate's "budget reconciliation" process to push their spending priorities through along partisan lines, we could see major changes along the way. Therefore, we won't know what aspects of these measures will pass, and at what level they will be funded, for at least a few months. And in the case of the FY22 budget, a reconciliation effort could mean that its final shape won't be resolved until sometime next year.

Another key objective of the American Jobs Plan is to close the digital divide—a goal shared by those in higher education. EDUCAUSE members have long recognized the importance of achieving universal broadband access. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, college and university IT organizations across the country scrambled to meet students' broadband needs when access to campus facilities became limited. As a result, IT staff and administrators know well the hardships that students face due to lack of access to broadband service and/or broadband-enabled devices.Footnote7

Our members' growing concerns about these problems led EDUCAUSE to work with over two dozen of our partner associations in the summer of 2020 to submit comments calling on Congress for action on the major broadband issues facing the higher education community.Footnote8 In addition to asking policymakers to fund institutions so that campuses can provide students in need with broadband service and devices throughout the pandemic, EDUCAUSE and its partners expressed their strong support for network infrastructure development proposals from the research and education networking (REN) community, led by Internet2 and The Quilt. Those proposals included further increasing the capacity of RENs and Internet2 to provide high-bandwidth middle-mile connections for community anchor institutions and other service providers so as to extend broadband access into unserved and underserved areas. The proposals also entailed helping Internet2 and RENs to future-proof their networks so that they could meet the bandwidth-intensive needs of higher education institutions and researchers for years to come.

Unfortunately, bills that would have finally moved the federal government from infrastructure talk to infrastructure action were shelved last summer in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Passage of the December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill brought some good news for student broadband and device access, however. The CRRSAA created two programs of particular interest to the higher education community: the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.Footnote9

Administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will extend subsidies to broadband providers to lower the cost of service to eligible households by $50 per month (or $75 per month in the case of households on tribal land) through the pandemic and for six months after the national emergency ends (assuming Congress continues to fund the program at the necessary level once the initial $3.2 billion appropriation has been exhausted). Eligible households will also have access to a $100 subsidy toward the purchase of a broadband-enabled device. An important feature of the program for higher education is that households with a Pell Grant recipient will be eligible to participate, which they cannot currently do under the FCC's pre-existing Lifeline subsidy program. Likewise, households that experienced a significant loss of income due to the pandemic since February 29, 2020, will also be eligible, which could provide another way to help students in need. The FCC is currently enrolling providers, and starting May 12 it will begin qualifying eligible households to receive service.Footnote10

Meanwhile, Congress tasked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with implementing the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, and like the FCC, NTIA is working hard to open the program to eligible institutions and partnerships in the spring of 2021. This $285 million program will provide HBCUs, MSIs, and TCUs with grants to help their students get and maintain broadband service, bolster institutional networking and technological capabilities, and/or lead partnerships of local minority-owned businesses and/or nonprofit organizations to extend broadband service into the institutions' surrounding communities.Footnote11 While the higher education community had hoped to see the passage of the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which would have funded broadband service and devices for financially distressed students on a wider basis, the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program will help eligible colleges and universities meet the needs of significant numbers of such students while enabling the institutions to potentially address digital divide issues in their local areas through the end of the pandemic.

As welcome as these programs are, the timelines for launching them and getting emergency support to students and institutions illustrate the importance of resolving the nation's overall broadband access and affordability problems. The American Jobs Plan includes a $100 billion proposal for making high-speed broadband universally available, in terms of both access and affordability, throughout the United States.Footnote12 Given the administration's stated intent to negotiate the details of the infrastructure package with Congress, the American Jobs Plan outlines only high-level markers for allocating the proposed funding, such as stressing that "future-proof" (likely meaning "fiber optic") network projects and local government/nonprofit providers will receive priority. However, media reports indicate that the Biden administration's proposal is based on the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.Footnote13 Introduced by Representative James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), this legislation would provide $80 billion for network infrastructure development, an additional $5 billion in low-interest loans for such projects, $6 billion to bolster the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, $2 billion to support broadband service for students without home access, and $1 billion for state grant programs to encourage broadband adoption.Footnote14

Congress and the Biden administration are striving to finalize and pass an infrastructure package by the time Congress takes its traditional mid-August break. With that in mind, leaders from the EDUCAUSE, Internet2, and regional network communities have been working to create and finalize a proposal advancing the concept that research and education infrastructure should be part of the nation's overall effort to meet infrastructure needs. EDUCAUSE is happy to support this, and we have begun to reconnect with partner associations to prepare the way for this developing set of research and education infrastructure recommendations. Together, in the summer of 2020, we sent Congress comments that outlined a strong case for the role that enhancing and extending research and education networks—including the people, software, identity management, security, and related infrastructure that are integral to their functioning—could play in advancing the nation's broadband and research objectives. EDUCAUSE appreciated the opportunity to play a pivotal role in swinging significant higher education association support behind that case, and we are pleased to see that the first 100 days of the Biden administration have opened the door to revisiting it. As we move into the next 100 days and beyond, EDUCAUSE looks forward to collaborating with its network and association partners to encourage further federal investment in support of colleges and universities as well as their students, communities, and stakeholders. Our shared message: we seek to connect every institution, connect every student, and ensure global competitiveness for our higher education institutions and their communities.

Milestones like "the first 100 days" have cachet, but they are also somewhat arbitrary. In the case of a new administration, this span of days is crucial in signaling how ambitious the president aspires to be and how that ambition is likely to be expressed in forthcoming legislation. In the case of the current administration, these have been a good 100 days for colleges and universities, but the days that follow are the ones to watch. They will make the real difference for higher education.

Notes

  1. "U.S. Department of Education Quickly Makes Available More Than $21 Billion in Taxpayer Funds to Support Continued Education at Colleges, Universities," U.S. Department of Education, press release, January 14, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. American Council on Education, "Summary of Higher Education Provisions in H.R. 748, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act," n.d. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. American Council on Education et al., "Higher Education Community Supplemental Letter to the Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer," December 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, "Analysis of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021," March 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. The White House, Briefing Room, "Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan," March 31, 2021; The White House, Briefing Room, "Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan," April 28, 2021). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, "Summary of the President's Discretionary Funding Request," attachment to "Letter to the Honorable Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations," April 9, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. See Susan Grajek, "EDUCAUSE COVID-19 QuickPoll Results: Help for Students," EDUCAUSE Review, April 3, 2020. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Jarret Cummings, "EDUCAUSE, Higher Ed Groups Push for Broadband Access and Infrastructure," EDUCAUSE Review, June 24, 2020. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Jarret Cummings, "Continuity and Change in Higher Education IT Policy," EDUCAUSE Review, February 2, 2021. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Federal Communications Commission, "Emergency Broadband Benefit" (website), accessed May 4, 2021. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Casey Lide and Jason P. Chun, "Overview of Broadband Funding Opportunities in the COVID-19 Relief Act," National Law Review, January 19, 2021. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. "Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan." Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Sara Morrison, "Biden's Plan to Fix America's Broken Internet, Briefly Explained," Vox, April 2, 2021. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. Office of US Senator Amy Klobuchar, "Klobuchar, Clyburn Introduce Comprehensive Broadband Infrastructure Legislation to Expand Access to Affordable High-Speed Internet," press release, March 11, 2021. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.

Jarret Cummings is Senior Advisor for Policy and Government Relations at EDUCAUSE.

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2021 Jarret Cummings and John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.