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Between a global pandemic, nationwide economic recession, and a historic social justice movement, it’s clear 2020 has been the most tumultuous year in community college leaders’ careers. And now, with the election just a couple weeks away, many are wondering: what’s next?
For community college leaders, answers to this question will affect strategies for years to come.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have starkly different characterizations of higher education, and their policy proposals reflect that. At a time when community colleges have borne the brunt of enrollment losses and funding cuts, it’s critical that college leaders lay the strategic groundwork now for the impact of each administration on the two-year sector.
Here are a few of the key ways that the outcome of the 2020 election could impact community colleges, as well as the short-, medium-, and long-term questions that college leaders should consider today.
Potential impact of a Biden administration
- Greater public investment in community colleges. Influenced in part by Dr. Jill Biden’s long teaching career, most recently as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, Biden’s proposal for higher education includes substantial support for two-year colleges. Specific proposals include providing two years of tuition-free enrollment, $50B for workforce training programs, and additional funding for facilities, emergency grants, and student success efforts.
- Restrict predatory for-profit recruitment practices. Biden proposes much stricter requirements for federal aid provision and reinstating the Obama-era borrower defense rule, which allowed students who were defrauded to petition to have their debt forgiven. This crackdown could result in for-profit providers losing their federal aid, which in the past has led students to enroll in community college instead.
- Increased funding for cash-strapped states. As a result of COVID-19 and the subsequent recession, states across the country are facing major deficits, with many already signaling that funding cuts to higher ed are imminent. Biden has lent his support to the various federal relief packages that Democratic legislators have put forward, which include substantial state funding that could offset impending cuts.
Questions for community college leaders to consider if Vice President Biden is elected:
- How would we prioritize additional stimulus funding to promote student success and institutional sustainability?
- Which resources need to be mobilized to prepare for a dramatic change in student enrollments?
- What additional resources will we need to provide adequate academic and student support to students who would take advantage of a debt-free community college experience?
- How can we improve and market our credit transfer policy from for-profit institutions?
- What community and institutional partnerships do we need to form or scale up to ensure that students have the best chance for success?
- How do we articulate our value proposition to our prospective students, communities, and legislators?
Potential impact of a second Trump administration
- Continued emphasis on workforce skills over credentials. Although higher education was not prominently featured in President Trump’s second term agenda, it’s expected that he will continue to promote the expansion of workforce training programs that provide a quick on-ramp to jobs, regardless of whether they confer a degree. Community colleges are best positioned to fulfill this goal within the “traditional” higher ed market. However, the Trump administration has also promoted private and employer-based training programs that many see as direct competitors to community colleges.
- Remove restrictions on for-profit providers. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Education has removed or relaxed several Obama-era policies designed to regulate the for-profit sector. Since for-profit institutions tend to recruit students with similar profiles as community colleges’, the continued deregulation of the for-profit industry could result in fewer students choosing community colleges, especially during a recession, when for-profit enrollments tend to rise.
- Restricted federal funding for states. While he has approved and advocated for federal relief funding to individuals, President Trump has thus far drawn the line at providing further direct funding to states following the CARES Act. This has potential downstream consequences for higher education allocations and community college budgets.
Questions for community college leaders to consider if President Trump is re-elected:
- What are the industry, community, and educational partnerships that we need to strengthen to ensure the sustainability of our institution?
- What is our approach to serve students who stop out of for-profit institutions with significant debt, but no credential?
- How can we ensure our programmatic offerings remain competitive with private and employer-providing trainings and promote these offerings effectively?
- What is the value proposition of our institution in a culture of higher ed skepticism, and how do we articulate that to our prospective students, communities, and legislators?
The results of the 2020 election will have enormous impacts, not the least of which will be felt by the two-year sector. To ensure your institution is prepared for what’s next, conduct a scenario planning exercise using the information above—as well as relevant public health, economic, and regional projections—to begin laying the groundwork for a multiplicity of futures.
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Administrators may be crossing their fingers and hoping their institution won’t be affected by the election. Many campuses took a similar approach in 2016 and were subsequently caught off-guard by the fury and fervor that followed President Trump’s win like racist graffiti and flyers, spikes in counseling center visits, and students feeling silenced. The 2020 election promises to be even more contentious and divisive.