USDE Publishes Six Proposed Priorities, Gives Insight Into Biden Administration’s Agenda

On June 30, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) published a list of six proposed priorities regarding discretionary grant programs for Secretary Cardona and the Biden Administration’s education agenda. While the priorities mostly cover K-12 issues and a policy response to COVID-19, one particular entry (Priority #5) may provide insight into the Department’s thinking regarding the upcoming regulatory agenda, which is set to kick off later this month.

The Secretary’s Proposed Priorities

Published in the Federal Register (Link), the Department states that the proposed priorities reflect “the Secretary’s vision for American education,” including “a respect for the dignity and potential of each and every student and their access to educational opportunity.”  For K-12 education, the Department includes priorities for bringing students back to in-person learning, student accessibility and technology issues, access for students with disabilities, and addressing systemic issues that the Department has identified. In postsecondary education, the proposed priorities address increasing access and success in postsecondary education for underserved students, including “making college affordable and fostering supportive career pathways.” The public was given an opportunity to comment on the proposal. The published priorities are as follows:

  • Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Students, Educators, and Faculty
  • Promoting Equity in Student Access to Educational Resources, Opportunities, and Welcoming Environments
  • Supporting a Diverse Educator Workforce and Professional Growth to Strengthen Student Learning
  • Meeting Student Social, Emotional, and Academic Needs
  • Increasing Postsecondary Education Access, Affordability, Completion, and Post-Enrollment Success
  • Strengthening Cross-Agency Coordination and Community Engagement to Advance Systemic Change

The proposed priorities are not binding on the Secretary, but they do indicate what kinds of topics and concerns will motivate USDE action. Even though they appear to be just an inside-Washington exercise (Note: The previous administration published eleven, very different priorities in October 2017 (Link) and subsequently revised them.), the priorities do impact the Department’s competitive grant programs, which dole out hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Additionally, the publication gives valuable insights into how, and from what perspective, the Department will address certain issues that it deems to be priorities.

Priority #5: Increasing Postsecondary Education Access, Affordability, Completion, and Post-Enrollment Success

For purposes of this blog, the most significant of the Secretary’s proposed priorities is Priority #5. The Department writes that “the Nation must boost completion rates at all levels of postsecondary education” and the Secretary hopes to do so by supporting projects that “prepare students, particularly underserved students, for college and the workforce; enroll more students in postsecondary education and help them succeed; and make college more affordable.” The proposed priority also supports career and technical education that “connects with and leads to postsecondary education programs of study and provides students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workforce, earn a competitive wage, and pursue lifelong learning and career and economic advancement.”

The proposed priority also aims to encourage adult learners to return to education by “meeting them where they are,” such as through adult education and literacy activities.

The Secretary’s priority supports projects that “make it easier for all students to afford postsecondary education, to complete their credential in a timely manner, and to understand the returns to their program of study.” It is notable that the Federal Register notice does not define “return” here, so it is unclear whether it is referring to an “academic return” or a “financial return.”

Under the potential priorities areas of Priority #5, the Department includes:

  • Focusing on community colleges, HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions;
  • Increasing postsecondary attainment and reducing costs by making the transfer of credits more seamless and transparent;
  • Increasing the number and proportion of underserved students who enroll in and complete postsecondary education programs;
  • Reducing the “net price or debt-to-earnings ratio” for underserved students;
  • Establishing a system of high quality data, such as data on persistence, retention, and completion;
  • Supporting the development and implementation of student success programs, such as academic advising, structured/guided pathways, career services and programs designed to meet a student’s basic needs;
  • Increasing the number of individuals who return to school to obtain a high school diploma or GED, enroll in college, and obtain basic and academic skills;
  • Supporting high-quality and accessible learning opportunities, including online, hybrid, work-based, and flexible programs;
  • Supporting “evidence-based practices” in career and technical education and the development and implementation of “evidence-based strategies” to promote student development of necessary knowledge and skills;
  • Connecting students with disabilities with resources designed to improve independent living and the achievement of employment outcomes; and
  • Providing students access to international education, “education in cultural and global competencies,” and foreign language training.

So, What Did We Learn?

Even though it is already August, much is still unknown about Secretary Cardona’s plans and desired policy outcomes for USDE. In fact, it is not abundantly clear as to whether, and to what extent, he will be involved in higher education issues given his background and expertise and the individuals that will be serving under his authority in the Department’s Office of the Undersecretary and the Office of Postsecondary Education.

With that being said, it appears that Secretary Cardona’s Department will be pursuing a policy of expanding access to postsecondary education opportunities, with a special focus on underserved communities, through “non-traditional” avenues, including community colleges, career and technical education, and adult education. A number of the above priorities speak to getting more students – traditional and non-traditional – to enroll and acquire some sort of higher education credential.

With regard to academic credit transfer, it is unclear what authority the Department actually has to impact the transferability of credits between 2-year and 4-year institutions, but this policy could include putting pressure on state higher education departments and multi-state organizations to streamline processes that are already in place. To some, this priority may seem non-controversial, but institutional and systemic barriers to the transferability of credits are real and 4-year institutions have an economic incentive to not accept or to reduce the number of credits they are willing to accept from community colleges.

It is unclear what reducing the “net price or debt-to-earnings ratio” for underserved students refers to precisely. This priority area likely indicates that Secretary Cardona supports increasing Pell grants, since that could impact both of these indicators. Expanding Pell eligibility or increasing the amount of the grant enjoys (some) bipartisan support on the Hill. President Biden has already indicated support for increasing Pell by approximately $1,400. Democrats in Congress proposed a bill in June to double the current Pell grant amount and index future increases to inflation. Increasing Pell eligibility has some Congressional Republican support, while doubling Pell received, at best, a tepid Republican response. It is also true that a majority of low-income students already go to community college for free, due to a combination of state aid and federal grants, like Pell, that often reduce their net cost to below zero.

The inclusion of a reference to a “debt-to-earnings ratio” is eye-opening. After the Gainful Employment rescission in 2019 (Link), USDE does not currently have, or enforce, a D/E ratio. The inclusion of this language could confirm something that we suspect: the Department is drafting a brand new D/E metric in preparation for a new Gainful Employment rulemaking. The Higher Education Group at Duane Morris will definitely be keeping a close watch on this topic.


For more information on this topic and others, please contact, Jonathan Helwink, Katherine D. Brodie, any of the attorneys in the Higher Education Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

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