With the inauguration of President Joe Biden last Wednesday, University of Michigan students and college students everywhere are waiting to see whether or not Biden upholds his many promises for higher education. 

Biden signed 30 executive orders in his first three days as president, including an executive order stating Title IX protections based on sex also extend to gender identity and sexual orientation, which will increase protections for students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. He also signed an executive order reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which will protect undocumented students from being deported.

Biden also signed an executive order to extend the pause for federal student loan payments until at least October 2021 because of financial difficulty caused by the pandemic. 

To follow up on a past article, The Michigan Daily decided to dig deeper into the Biden administration’s updated promises for higher education and see how U-M students feel about them.

Education Affordability 

In the past decades, the cost of higher education in the United States has grown rapidly, out-pacing inflation and any increases in wages. In response, support in younger generations for lower-cost options is steadily growing. 

Biden’s higher education plan prioritizes making college more affordable for all potential students. Specifically, Biden has discussed cost-free community college and cost-free public university for low-income families.

LSA sophomore Andrew Schaeffler, a campus organizer for Students for Biden at Michigan, said he believes this policy direction is important and not something that was emphasized enough in the Trump administration. 

“Something that’s very unique to the Biden administration is the fact that his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a community college professor in Virginia,” Schaeffler said. “Being able to see that firsthand the impact that (community college) has on so many people … it’s so valuable for young adults and for students.” 

However, LSA junior Ryan Fisher, chairman of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said he believes the federal government has too large a role in higher education in America, and that Biden’s policy direction would only serve to enlarge this role. 

“If community college is to be free, that is something I’d prefer states to do on their own,” Fisher said. “It just seems (to me) to be a more local issue than the federal government’s.” 

To continue to make college more affordable, Biden has also promised to double the maximum value of Pell Grants to offer additional financial aid to lower-income students. 

Ian Robinson, president of the University’s Lecturers’ Employee Union, pointed out the effects the increased value in Pell Grants would have on enrollment in the UM-Flint and Dearborn campuses. UM-Flint has recently had a significant enrollment decline and Dearborn has had a decline in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters, which have left 41%  of UM-Flint lecturers and 33% of UM-Dearborn lecturers partially or completely laid off in the 2020-21 academic year.

“Currently maxing out at  $6,345 per school year, a doubling of the amount would enable the roughly 40% of UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn students eligible for Pell Grants to pay almost all U-M tuition each year,” Robinson said. “This would dramatically reduce the amount of student debt that they would need to take on in order to earn a U-M degree.”

Schaeffler said he was very excited for this new policy direction on Pell Grants and what it would mean for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford higher education. 

“I think that it is a perfect proposal,” Schaeffler said. “It will be able to impact so many students while not serving as a political barrier or a political handicap to anyone that votes on it, whether that be Democrat or Republican.” 

Fisher also said he liked Biden’s Pell Grants plan, though this is because he believes Pell Grants go to deserving candidates and are thus worth it. 

“What I will say — and this is a broad criticism of many of Biden’s plans — I wonder whether we are paying for (the proposed increase in Pell Grants) via sort of long-term debt or tax repayment for generations and generations,” Fisher said.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona 

Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick for his Secretary of Education, was Connecticut’s first Latino Commissioner of Education. Cardona spent much of his career working for the district he attended, first as a teacher and later in administration and district management. 

While Cardona has a lot of experience with K-12 schools, he has less experience with higher education.

Though it would be nice for Cardona to have experience in higher education, Schaeffler said, he is not worried or concerned about the job Cardona will do. 

“I think that the Department of Education now is going to be focusing on getting elementary through high school students back, and (Cardona) has experience in Connecticut, doing that and providing schools with resources,” Schaeffler said. “Experience speaks for itself, and I think it’s very important to have someone who was a former K-12 teacher as the head of the Department of Education.” 

Schaeffler also said he is excited about the emphasis on technology as the Biden administration moves to maintain quality education at home and in the classroom. 

Sumeet Patwardhan, president of the University’s Graduate Employees’ Organization, said he believes Cardona’s background brings a new perspective to the administration that will work well with others’ experience.

“His experience as a K-12 instructor, superintendent and commissioner is complemented by other important members within the Biden administration,” Patwardhan said. “So, for example, the first lady, Dr. Biden, is a community college instructor, so she brings invaluable experience in the higher education realm, and also Biden’s pick to run the consumer financial protection bureau, Rohit Chopra, is a big advocate for student loan forgiveness and cracking down on predatory colleges.”

On the other hand, Fisher said he is not a huge fan of Cardona, and would most likely  have not been a fan of anyone Biden was likely to pick. Fisher specified he has no problem with Cardona’s specific experience in K-12 education. 

“Frankly, I think (K-12 schools) are the areas that need the most improvement in our country,” Fisher said. “Colleges, they have problems, sure, but I think they are for the most part a lot more self-sustaining and a lot more adequate than a lot of our public (K-12) schools.”

But Fisher stated his support for Biden and Cardona’s push to get students back in schools as soon as is safely possible with the pandemic. 

“I hope that they leave it up to the school districts,” Fisher said. “But generally, I believe students need to be welcomed back to the classroom as soon as possible, for their own good.” 

Addressing Rising Student Debt 

In the United States, there are 45 million student loan borrowers who collectively owe almost $1.6 trillion. 

To address increasing rates of student loans, Biden has discussed possibly forgiving up to $10,000 in student debt and revitalizing little-used debt forgiveness programs. 

Schaeffler said he is particularly excited about debt forgiveness because it can be done by Biden personally, through an executive order. 

“I think that these are going to be really, really vital tools that are going to make a difference,” Schaeffler said. “So many young adults and college students are already in debt.” 

Patwardhan, while pleased with the concept of debt forgiveness, said he believes more needs to be done, a common critique of Biden’s education policy from progressives.

“I think it’s a good plan, but it could go even farther,” Patwardhan said. “Capping the plan at $10,000 will underplay the stimulus effect that student loan forgiveness can have on the economy and the equity and equality of life improvements it would have for individual borrowers.”

Biden has also discussed an income-based student loan repayment plan that involves making enrollment in income-driven repayment plans automatic, capping monthly payments at 5% of discretionary income, making student loan forgiveness automatic after 20 years and making payments tax-free. 

Robinson said he believes Biden’s plans will make student debt easier to manage and will help students in pursuing a career that they are passionate about.

“Making good on the promise of loan forgiveness for those who commit to public service rather than maximizing their income in for-profit private sector jobs will accelerate the path to debt freedom and reward people who want to pursue careers that put the well-being of others first, but were afraid they could not afford to do so,” Robinson said.

Unlike the others, Fisher strongly disagrees with this policy direction. He said he believes a loan is a promise of debt to be repaid, and that letting people out of this promise is wrong. He also said he is worried about any potential shortsightedness it might encourage in students. 

“I think it implicitly incentivizes students to pursue, I would say, unwise majors or unwise programs — those with minimal job prospects,” Fisher said. “This is the type of program that to me seems to subsidize students pursuing careers that are maybe less sought after or less strong.” 

Historically Black Colleges and Other Minority Serving Institutions

Biden has also promised to make attendance at historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions more affordable by increasing investments and improving their infrastructure. This would include funding teaching, health care and STEM programs for students.

Robinson said the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted  historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, many of which will need financial assistance from the government in order to survive.

“(And) beyond mere survival, federal investment in these institutions symbolizes the recognition of the American people of the hugely important role that these colleges and universities have played historically, and can continue to play in the future, in providing openings and support for millions of indigenous, Black and people of color students,” Robinson said. “We surely owe these institutions a debt of gratitude for the successes and contributions that their students have made to their communities and the nation as a whole over the many decades of their vital work.”

But Fisher again stated his position that this is an area of education he believes should be reserved for the states and not for the federal government. 

“I wish states were the ones making decisions with regard to funding the historically Black colleges and universities within their boundaries,” Fisher said. “I don’t have a problem with funding these institutions in particular, but I do question whether or not we should be treating them differently.” 

Like Robinson, Patwardhan also weighed in on the importance of diversity in education, saying any plan which attempts to increase equity in higher education should not solely focus on improving predominantly white institutions. Patwardhan said he thinks this tactic would end up producing equity in graduation rates, employment rates or educational attainment rates.

“Specifically improving investment infrastructure is a good idea because sometimes support for these institutions is limited to symbolic forms of support and encouragement, and I think the increase of investments and development of infrastructure shows a material commitment to those institutions,” Patwardhan said.

Daily Staff Reporters Kate Weiland and Paige Hodder can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu and phodder@umich.edu.

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