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The Biden Administration

5 Ways to Put Higher Education on the Right Course in 2021

The Biden administration has the opportunity to protect students and ensure that schools deliver on their promises of a good education.

A University of New Mexico student joins a Zoom class from her dorm room during the fall 2020 semester. The data show that people with four-year degrees have better outcomes, but there is more that can be done to ensure higher education continues to be a good investment. (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

What is the value of higher education in our country today? The data is clear: For most people, higher education pays off. People with four-year degrees have the lowest rates of unemployment, the best health outcomes, and are the most stable financially. But those results depend on getting a quality education from a reputable school — and that kind of accountability is where our public policy falls short. 

As a country, we are not doing nearly enough to ensure students — especially students of color and those from low-income backgrounds — have access to quality higher education that sets them up for success.

In fact, we are allowing taxpayer dollars to subsidize schools that cheat students of their futures and burden them with debt they will never be able to repay. 

The Biden administration has the opportunity to change that. With a clear focus on value and protecting both students and taxpayers, President-elect Biden and his team can ensure that higher education is an engine of economic mobility and stability and continues to be a good investment. 

Here are five actions the Biden administration can take to put our higher education system on the right course:

#1 Ensure schools and programs demonstrate their value before opening up the spigot of taxpayer dollars.

Our current system of quality assurance is broken. Roughly 1 million borrowers default on their student loans annually, but only about a dozen schools face potential loss of aid due to high default rates. The Biden administration needs to advance an aggressive regulatory agenda that puts in place rules that assure schools deliver on their promises for students before they get access to taxpayer dollars. The Biden team can start by undoing many of the harmful deregulation efforts put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, such as her gutting of the gainful employment” rule. But they need to go farther and hold all schools and programs accountable for serving all students well.

#2 Make students who have been cheated by predatory and low-quality schools whole.

Students who have been cheated by their schools are entitled to debt relief. But under DeVos, those protections have been gutted, and there are more than 80,000 borrowers waiting for the relief they deserve. President-elect Biden needs to immediately reverse the DeVos Borrower Defense rule and put in place an effective, efficient process to make these victimized students whole.

#3 Protect veterans from schools that want to steal their hard-earned GI Bill dollars.

The 9010 loophole in current law does not count GI Bill dollars as federal funds. This has made veterans longtime targets of predatory for-profit colleges. The Biden campaign promised that closing this loophole would be a top priority. The administration needs to deliver on that promise to ensure veterans are protected from unscrupulous schools who want their money but don’t deliver on the promise of a high quality education. 

#4 Shine a light on how schools are doing with basic transparency.

Current law prohibits the federal government from collecting and reporting accurate data on student outcomes at each college and university in the U.S. But right now in Congress, there is a bill — the College Transparency Act — that would repeal this outdated and nonsensical prohibition and provide students and families with information on student outcomes to help them make better-informed choices about higher education. President-elect Biden should demand Congress send him the College Transparency Act to sign within the first 100 days.

#5 Invest in programs that have demonstrated impact.

Despite compelling evidence on programs that increase student success, like CUNY ASAP and Bottom Line, a federal funding stream does not exist to incentivize or support institutions in adopting these proven-effective programs. President-elect Biden should direct his Secretary of Education to prioritize investments that demonstrate their effectiveness and also use his first budget to call for a new federal grant program to support the adoption of evidence-based programs in higher education.

All of these policies have bipartisan support; now we just need the political will and leadership in Washington, D.C. to get them done.