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  • Joe Biden Won. Here's What Higher Ed Can Expect.
... problems stemming from enrollment drops and increased instructional expenses have forced thousands of layoffs and left an unknown number of...

Joe Biden Won. Here’s What Higher Ed Can Expect.

Tuition-free college, student-debt relief, and the reversal of several Trump policies are high on the agenda.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. crossed the 270 electoral-vote threshold on Saturday and, barring a successful legal challenge, he will be sworn in January 20 as the 46th president of the United States.

Before expanding Americans’ access to higher ed, however, Biden must first rescue a system beset by pandemic-induced crises that threaten to consume it. Deep financial problems stemming from enrollment drops and increased instructional expenses have forced thousands of layoffs and left an unknown number of colleges teetering on the brink of failure. Biden has called for a sevenfold increase in coronavirus testing — a plan that would provide vital health information to colleges eager to return students and professors to classrooms.

The Democrat appears likely to face a Republican majority in the Senate, which would hamstring some of his plans to revive higher ed. A divided government in Washington would force Biden to lean more heavily on his executive powers to influence higher-education policy. Some legislative items, such as larger Pell Grants, could still survive, but they would most likely be scaled back. Democrats might have one last shot at capturing control of the Senate in January, when both of Georgia’s seats could be up for grabs in a rare double-runoff election.

Campus s-xual assault — As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden played a key role in the White House’s campaign to push colleges to do more to combat s-xual assault on campus. In 2011, he unveiled the landmark “Dear Colleague” letter stating that the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX made colleges broadly responsible for doing all they could to prevent such crimes and punish the perpetrators.

But the focus completely shifted under President Trump, whose Education Department instead embraced arguments that the accused are treated unfairly during hearings under Title IX. Those hearings could potentially lead to suspension or expulsion of the accused.

To protect the rights of the accused, who are usually men, the Trump administration forced colleges to adopt more of a courtroom-style process. And hearing procedures were changed in ways that made it harder for survivors to prove their cases, or even to get a hearing in the first place.

Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, a group that advocates for survivors of s-xual assault, said the Trump administration’s approach represented a radical departure from decades of Education Department policy.

Under Obama, Carson said, most accusers who contacted her organization were eligible to take their case to a Title IX hearing. Under Trump, a majority of them no longer qualify.

The 2011 letter, released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, caused frustration among some college administrators, as it outlined entirely new standards for how colleges should investigate rape allegations. The letter also made it clear that the federal government would be aggressive in holding colleges accountable for preventing s-xual assault.

But the Trump administration’s new direction also caused headaches for colleges, because its directives on s-xual assault took away much of institutions’ autonomy, said Sarah Flanagan, head of the government-relations staff at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Coronavirus stimulus — The economic collapse caused by Covid-19 has sent many colleges into a financial tailspin, and Congress is under enormous pressure to provide a second round of stimulus money to higher education. If another stimulus bill is approved, some federal dollars could flow to colleges directly, but institutions would also benefit from money awarded to states, since public higher education’s fortunes are directly tied to the overall health of state budgets.

Congress could approve a stimulus package under President Trump, during the lame-duck session. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, said Wednesday that passing a stimulus package would be a top priority, and “we need to do it before the end of the year.” McConnell signaled that he is open to including aid to state and local governments in the legislation.

If Democrats and Republicans are able to strike a deal, and President Trump signs off on it, that doesn’t mean that Biden wouldn’t influence the stimulus debate. After taking office, he is expected to push forcefully for additional government spending to reinvigorate the economy. Higher-education funding could become a huge part of that effort — in particular, support for short-term certificate and associate-degree programs that will retrain workers laid off during the pandemic.

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