ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When President-elect Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech, he gave this shoutout.
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JOE BIDEN: For American educators, this is a great day for you all.
BIDEN: You're going to have one of your own in the White House.
SHAPIRO: His wife Jill Biden's a longtime English professor at a community college. So what should colleges and students expect from a Biden administration? NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: With a new president, the federal government's approach to higher education seems almost certain to be less confrontational. In both rhetoric and policy, the Trump administration was often openly hostile to colleges, viewing them as liberal, elite institutions out of touch with the rest of the country.
ROBERT KELCHEN: Across most of public and private nonprofit higher ed, there is a sigh of relief.
NADWORNY: Robert Kelchen studies higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Right now, he says, colleges have one main priority - getting through the pandemic.
KELCHEN: The finances are very bad across the board right now.
NADWORNY: Just 40% of colleges are primarily or fully in person. Many have had to make serious cuts.
KELCHEN: They've laid off staff members. They've laid off faculty. They've cut majors and programs. And quite a few colleges are starting to run out of money.
NADWORNY: The American Council on Education, a group representing college presidents, is asking Congress for $120 billion for higher ed. So getting more money to colleges will be a major priority for the Biden administration. This summer, Biden announced an expensive and ambitious higher ed plan - making tuition at public colleges free, giving more money to low-income students and sweeping changes to student loan forgiveness. Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, is optimistic about those big ideas.
ANTOINETTE FLORES: This will be an administration that cares about the challenges that students are facing, that knows that the cost of college is a significant problem and needs to be addressed.
NADWORNY: But with a potentially Republican-controlled Senate, legislation will be a challenge. Plus, it is unclear how much Joe Biden will go to fight for those progressive ideas.
JASON DELISLE: They look nothing like what he advocated in 2008 or, really, they look nothing like what he's advocated for for most of his career.
NADWORNY: Jason Delisle of the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute is skeptical.
DELISLE: How hard is he going to fight for this?
NADWORNY: If there are constraints from Congress, a new administration may instead focus on executive orders and regulations from the Education Department. Focus could be on forgiving student loans or taking aim at for-profit colleges or policies molded by the Trump administration. A top target is Title IX, which governs how colleges handle sexual assault and harassment complaints. Some students welcome the change. Here's Marc Younger, a junior studying political science at Rutgers University.
MARC YOUNGER: If we talk about sexual assault and rape culture or toxic masculinity, all those things are really prevalent on college campuses.
NADWORNY: He's convinced a new administration will set a tone for the rest of America, including college students, to follow.
YOUNGER: Just this new culture alone ultimately allows for students to feel more safe and secure on their own campus.
NADWORNY: But the White House will have a number of priorities. And in education, says Seton Hall's Kelchen, a big focus will be on K-12 and getting schools to open safely.
KELCHEN: We sit here in higher ed land and think we're the only thing, but no, we aren't.
NADWORNY: Another policy priority with implications for higher ed is immigration. International student enrollment has been declining due to the pandemic and Trump administration policies. Colleges have long supported making it easier for students to come and study in the U.S. That means more international students could enroll, which increases diversity and revenue from tuition.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
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