S1:E2 Eric Kelderman – The election’s impact on higher education

February 8, 2021 |  Budget, News
29 min

Eric Kelderman is a Senior Reporter for the Chronicle, who shares his insights about how the results of the election are likely to impact higher education.


Tyler Jacobson  0:00

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week, we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now, let’s get into it. 

With us, we have Eric Kelderman, who is a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. And we’ve got a very interesting topic we want to discuss about politics and education. I wanted to give you a chance, Eric, really quickly to give a little bit of your background and how you got to where you are and why you are interested in education and politics.

Eric Kelderman  0:42

Well, I’ve been at the Chronicle of Higher Education since 2008. So I’ve had a pretty good run there. A lot of folks—just as an aside—a lot of folks who come to the Chronicle stay for decades, so I’m by far not the longest tenured reporter there…not even close. But I came there in 2008, with a background in covering trends and state politics and policy from state line.org, which at the time was a project of the Pew Research Center. I’m still housed at Pew just in a different part of their organization. And before that, I was an education reporter for the Gazette newspapers in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I covered the Montgomery County public schools, largely, a big system with 140,000 students. And my actual background…I came to journalism late in life, I have two degrees in music. I have a degree in music theory and composition from the University of Minnesota, and an undergraduate degree in music from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. After a few years of working as a professional musician, I decided to go into journalism, went to the University of Maryland and got a master’s degree. They have a very practical-based program there and took me about a year and a half, and [I] launched into journalism from there. So a lot of state policy and politics in my background as a journalist, and then at the Chronicle, I’ve covered a wide range of issues, but mostly policy and the ramifications for higher education.

Tyler Jacobson  2:15

Well, that’s great. And the article that caught my attention, why I wanted to invite you on is the one titled “A democratic-controlled Senate Will Change Everything, But Guarantee Nothing For Higher Ed,” and that that title just captured my attention, because a lot of our listeners and our customers are IT professionals in higher education, and politics is something that is kind of on that periphery, that the political ramifications typically have to do with budgets and, job stability and things like that. So I wanted to give you a chance to kind of talk about this most recent election. As rough and tumble as it was, what does it mean, in the short term? And then the long term because I think that a lot of people have concerns. Where are we at? Like, is this gonna be ugly? Is it gonna be great? You know, what, and I think that the answer from your article may be a little bit of both. So give me a little bit of overview on the article and, and what the ramifications for education are from this most recent election. 

Eric Kelderman  3:28

Just a little bit of background, you know, the four years for higher education in the four years under the Trump administration, were really defined by a couple of different trends from the president, there was this rhetoric and some executive orders on matters that had a pretty negative impact on higher education. And I’m thinking of the travel ban the limitations on international students, which cuts into the revenue streams for a lot of universities, because for major universities anyway, that recruit a lot of foreign students, those those folks pay, as, as your many of your listeners will know, those folks pay full tuition, right. And that’s helpful for your bottom line, if you can get as many of those people in the door as you can. And also, it’s good in a larger sense of fostering global understanding, right? Cross cultural education and things like that. And then there were things like, you know, investigations into and actions against universities for their enrollment practices. Trying to remove race as any sort of factor in enrollment, and in investigations into universities about their free speech policies. So that’s one side of it. On the other side, you have the Department of Education, which undertook a very large agenda of deregulating its oversight of higher education. And I don’t want to go too much into the weeds, but pulling back a lot of the accountability measures that were enacted under the Obama administration. So that’s the setup. Now we get to the Biden administration. On the regulatory front, it’s not really clear how the administration is going to approach higher education. I think clearly, the rhetoric is going to be much friendlier to higher education. The limitations on international students will likely go away fairly quickly. And then to the point of the article, what happened in Congress, of course, the democrats will now have the narrowest of margins in the Senate. Actually, no majority in the Senate, the Senate will be split 50/50. But the vice president Kamala Harris, will provide the controlling vote there for the Democrats, which means a couple of things. They get to set the committee assignments. So Senator Patty Murray will take over as the leader of the Health Committee, which is the committee in the Senate that oversees education issues, and she’ll replace Senator Lamar Alexander who was the Republican who led that committee. He’s retiring. But Patty Murray has a deepened understanding of education issues. She’s been on the committee for a long time. And I think higher education lobbying associations in Washington feel comfortable with her leadership. So a friendlier face from their point of view, perhaps in the Senate, than then might have occurred under a Republican majority. And then the next question is: “What can democrats do with a majority in the Senate?” They already have a majority in the House. Can they actually push through some major legislation that will be friendly to higher ed? And the answer is… “probably not”, with a couple of exceptions. So one big bill that’s out there is the Higher Education Act. That’s the overarching piece of legislation that governs, you know, all the spending that the federal government does, and regulatory oversight for higher education. That bill essentially expired and has been sort of existing since 2013. In its present form, but it should be reauthorized, a lot has changed since then. And the government could really do with a new look at a lot of the issues around how we hold colleges accountable for their performance, for their graduation rates, or the earnings of their graduates. How much money should we [be] spending on Pell grants for low income students? Things like that. Right? So unfortunately, for Democrats, really what you need to pass any major bills in the Senate is 60 votes to stop any threat of a filibuster, Democrats only have 51. And it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to get nine Republicans to agree to much of anything, unless it’s a pretty easy piece of legislation. And the Higher Education Act is not that really. It’s very complex. And it deals with some fairly controversial issues like Title 9, which means issues about how colleges handle sexual harassment, and allegations of sexual misconduct by students and faculty members. So it seems like the Higher Ed Act is probably off the table. What they could do perhaps [is] pass some budget issues, because they can use what’s called reconciliation. [A] budget reconciliation bill, that only requires a simple majority in the Senate. But it’s going to be hard to get everybody to agree even to something like that even in the Democratic Caucus.

Tyler Jacobson  8:41

So when you say budget reconciliation bill, how does that impact the individual schools? What does budget reconciliation mean? Just for those of us that are not politically versed in the way you are?

Eric Kelderman  8:54

Right? Well, budget bills can’t be subject to the filibuster in the Senate. So there’s this thing called reconciliation. And there’s special rules around this. In general, it has to be revenue neutral, although they can get around that. So if you increase spending in one area, like for higher education, you might have to cut in other areas, right? And that’s tricky, right? Because every senator represents states that have their own interests. And if you’re cutting something that affects one state, and it helps another, there’s tension there. Everybody wants their piece of the pie in politics, and that’s how the government works. So they can do that with a simple majority. But, it gets hard. And I think that’s probably the vehicle that Democrats are going to have to use to get anything major through the Senate. But it has to do with spending. So you can’t really do a higher education reauthorization act, because there are issues that are not directly related to how the government allocates money. But I think one way that the democrats can succeed here, potentially, is by pushing through another Coronavirus stimulus act. And that I think is going to be probably the first major priority of the Biden administration…is to push through. And so there’s already been some news coverage of this. President-Elect Biden soon to be President Biden has recommended a $1.9 trillion Coronavirus stimulus bill. There will be…and I apologize, I can’t remember the number offhand…but some portion of that is…some billions of that is set to go to higher education. And I apologize for not knowing that number right off the top of my head. And that will be the way that higher ed will be directly impacted. Probably, I would say within the first couple of months of the new Congress and the new administration. That money will go to financial aid probably for students, there will probably be some institutional money similar to the previous Coronavirus stimulus bills, where Congress split the money between direct aid to students and aid institutions, right? And institutions have used that money in a lot of cases for their folks to build up their technology infrastructure, because everybody is studying remotely or a lot of people are studying remotely now. And so you need better servers on campus, right? And faculty need to be trained in how to use Zoom effectively for classrooms and the classroom. The individual faculty members need better technology, maybe to do that instruction in their classroom or or within their home wherever they’re conducting their classes. So that’s how that money will get to colleges and universities. And I think there’s probably a good chance that Biden will get something in the new year after he takes office. The question is, there’s a lot of horse trading that happens after a bill gets introduced. And we’ll see it took, you know, whatever, eight months between the last two Coronavirus, stimulus bills, and so it won’t be an easy or simple process. 

Tyler Jacobson  12:13

And that’s exactly what I was kind of seeing is, I think that a lot of people are… enrollment, I’ve seen statistics on freshmen enrollment being down anywhere from, you know, 25 to 30%. And so that’s a budgetary pressure. And the pandemic was not budget friendly to any of these programs, because they had already allocated all their resources for onsite education when they had to pivot to remote access and remote learning that incurred additional charges that weren’t in the budget, and everybody absorbed those costs, because there wasn’t a choice. And now we’re moving into the second year of this. And so with enrollment pressures and budgetary pressures coming down, adding to that, and they’re up on the renewals for a lot of their stopgap efforts for technology and networks and things like that. So we have an issue that’s now layering on top of each other. And from what you’re saying, there’s going to be something in these bills that are going to help, but it’s not likely to be sufficient to be an overall solution. And so what do you think…if this $1.9 trillion gets passed, and it does plug a couple holes in the budgetary dam there…is there going to be a third wave down the road? What are your thoughts on [that]? How lasting is the government involvement in this going to be?

Eric Kelderman  13:44

Well, I think there’s, you know, there’s some optimism that the vaccine will be widespread enough by fall of 2021. And most colleges will be back to largely in person instruction. I know, for instance, big systems like the University of California, and some others have already announced that they’re going to be fully in-person by fall 2021. Now that could change if the vaccine rolls out more slowly or we encounter problems along the way. But you’re right, the budgetary issues have been hard. I do want to speak to the enrollment issue just briefly, because yes: freshmen enrollment was down. And I know there’s a lot of variation within institutions. But when you look at the big picture, the colleges [that have] suffered the worst enrollment downturn were the community colleges. They have the largest overall decline in enrollment, and I believe also the largest decline in freshmen enrollment. So I think if you look at sectors within higher education, flagship universities, big research universities with diverse streams of revenue are largely…I don’t want to say that they’re in great shape, but they’re okay. Right? And then as you move down the sort of the pecking order as it were, institutions with with fewer streams of revenue, meaning they don’t have big auxiliary enterprises that are bringing in a lot of revenue, they don’t have a lot of international students, they don’t have a lot of research grants, things like that, then it becomes harder. And also, I think, enrollment pressures have not impacted institutions, the four year institutions, I think, as much as had been feared. So, it’s not great. But it’s also not a disaster for most of them. The problem comes that they have a lot of extra expenses, as you know. There’s the technology expense. There’s also if you’re going to open for in-person instruction, there’s a lot of extra expenses for personal protective equipment, and outfitting classrooms to be safer and spreading people out. So we say time is money, but space is also money, right? So if your lab class used to hold 25 people and you need to spread them out by six [feet], maybe you only get a th