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 third of those folks in that same room. And so you have to operate buildings on a longer schedule. I’ve talked to higher ed leaders, where they’ve talked about how the number of evening classes has doubled or tripled at their institution, because they just don’t have the space to put everybody in the same room that they used to use. All these sort of mundane things that we don’t think about typically are happening. And so I think it’s on the expense side, what I’m hearing, is where universities are really struggling the most. We also haven’t seen a lot of institutions announcing closure, which I think was widely feared that we would see this sort of rash of institutions shutting their doors, and there are a lot of small, private colleges that are sort of already on thin ice, and some of those will go away, probably, but we haven’t seen a big wave of that. And maybe next year, we see more of that. But thankfully, for those institutions, that hasn’t happened yet. You know, but the federal money that I think will come. And then we have to hope that the vaccine gets widespread enough by fall that people can go back to the classroom and resume sort of life as normal, you know, in air quotes, right? That all seems like a long way off. And who knows what happens in between, I would hate to prognosticate. 

Tyler Jacobson  17:36

Well, and that’s one of the other things that I think we’ve seen is… I know, there have been several comments made about shutting things down again, in order to get the virus under control and things like that. And there was a distinct split in political affiliations with whether that was a good idea or not. Is that something where because of this election, we’re likely to see another required closure for the schools that are trying to be on campus? Is that going to play into it? Or is it going to remain something that the individual schools make their assessments on, on what the right way to go is?

Eric Kelderman  18:14

I think the spring semester will be interesting, because obviously, case loads are very high across the country and deaths are…we’re at the 3000 deaths-a-day rate, which is horrific when you think about it. And so the spring semester, I think will continue to be a tough one for higher ed in terms of: a lot of them have already delayed the start of their winter semester, eliminated spring break, so that if you are coming to campus, you’re there. You’re not traveling to and from and potentially spreading COVID back in your hometown or whatever. I think it’ll be likely that we’ll see some campuses start the spring semester and then either have some disruption in their activity or may have to go entirely remote again during the spring. I don’t think it will be as widespread as last year. But really, who knows? Last year, there were many more unknowns about how the virus works. And also I think even with the election, I think it is a priority of the Biden administration too…and by the way, the federal government obviously doesn’t determine whether colleges and universities close or open. That’s up to either the state in the case of a public institution or the individual institution, if it’s a private place, but the states will have a lot more say over that than the federal government. But I think the Biden administration, at least if you read the clues from their messaging on K-12, is that they want things to open and they want to get kids back into schools, certainly at the K 12 level. And I think higher ed too, the tricky part is going to be how soon can we get faculty and teachers vaccinated so that they are not at risk. And that’s been an issue on campuses, right? faculty feel like: “Sure we’d like to be back on campus. We’d like teaching in person better, but we don’t want to put our own health at risk,” right? Certainly older faculty members have talked a lot about that and have resisted or, I don’t want to say…the word isn’t really ‘complaint’ doesn’t work, but have brought up their concerns about being in the classroom. And nobody wants them to get sick and die, obviously. So, but I do think the administration is interested in getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and getting people back into classrooms.

Tyler Jacobson  20:41

And I think that’s great. I especially appreciate the fact that you highlighted that that’s largely going to be institutional and state based. And so whether anything comes down as a recommendation, the ultimate decision is going to be a lot more local. Yeah, I’m in Idaho, where, you know, people are more anxious to get back out and, and getting things opened up and things like that. But my own kids that are in college are in exactly the scenario that you described, which is a late start, spring break canceled. And there’s a mix of some on campus education, but it’s largely remote. And I agree with what you said, as far as the vaccine is going to be the biggest thing that’s going to help people get back to campus and back functioning in a quote unquote, more “normal” way. But I think that we’re gonna see a ripple effect on budgets and the types of education, some good and some bad. That there’s going to be a substantial change in the way that classes are taught, and the resources that students expect. I know, in my own household, I’ve got a split decision of whether or not remote learning is a good thing or a bad thing. I have two that have thrived in that environment. And two that have not. It has not gone well. And they’re—well as parents, we’re looking forward to them getting back into a fully on-site environment where they can have that face to face interaction. So the last thing I kind of wanted to mention or bring up: what are the timelines on some of these you think? As far as you said, some of these are potentially just not going to happen. And then others are tied into this big stimulus bill that we’re all watching in the news. Is this something that’s going to be weeks or months in the Biden administration?

Eric Kelderman  22:42


Tyler Jacobson  22:43

Yeah. Okay. 

Eric Kelderman  22:45

All of the above? Again, it depends a lot on. So, if you think, let’s, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Democrats have some interest in passing this $1.9 trillion stimulus bill quickly, then it’s a matter of getting everyone in their caucus, right, sort of on board. And that includes people like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who we would consider moderate, or even a conservative Democrat in a very conservative state. And people like Bernie Sanders, are  sort of within the spectrum of the Democratic Party on the other on the opposite side, right. He’s actually an independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats. So they’ve got this big spectrum within their, within their, within their own caucus. And I think that, if he were to play sort of a political oddsmaker here, he would guess that Joe Manchin of West Virginia is going to get a lot of what he wants in that bill. And the question is: how much of that jives with what other democrats want or don’t want? That’s to be determined, I think fresh off the election, if I were to guess, the Biden administration is gonna have a little bit of a honeymoon with the Democrats. And, you know, things come up that are unexpected, and that the politicians have to take note of or deal with. The impeachment trial, if it happens, could suck up some time and energy, they decide to have a trial for President Trump, then that has to be continuous and you can’t really do a lot of other legislative business while that’s going on. So that’s a question. The question is, will Republicans join them in this effort? Will they try to throw up some procedural roadblocks? If they’re in the minority it is pretty hard. But certainly, you know, if we look back at for instance the eight years of President Obama, Republicans obstructed a lot of things that the administration tried to accomplish. They were in the majority though, for much of that time. But the timing is: who knows? I do want to go back to one thing you talked about In remote learning and think about this, which is: when I think about sort of the outcomes of this, one thing that’s interesting to me is how we will reassess online learning in the future. A lot of schools had to put a lot of resources [in] and extra training for faculty. And will there be some sort of payoff for that in the long run for some of these institutions that might never have expanded their online learning platforms? A lot of colleges that went online completely…I’m thinking of some of the small privates right? [They] really had very little in the way of online programming before last spring. And so will there be some payoff for them and for students down the road if we have expanded access to some of those things? And [if we have] have learned a lot about how it works or doesn’t work. And it isn’t for every student, right? There are some students that need a lot of support, that do better in face-to-face learning. But for those students who work for certain classes, where it’s easier to interact remotely, or to complete the work remotely, I think it will be interesting to follow that and see how much expansion we see of that in the next decade.

Tyler Jacobson  26:19

I agree. We’ve seen that play out in many universities, that that’s going to be the long term thing. So as we wrap up this conversation, would you say that it’s fair, that we say, according to the title of your article, and I’ll put the link of that in here as well, [that] a democratic controlled Senate will change everything but guarantee nothing. The bottom line is we’re gonna see some changes, but the people that are clutching their chests in fear could probably have their fears alleviated a little bit. And the people that are cheering for all ills will be resolved to probably bring their enthusiasm down a little bit, that we’re going to be a lot more towards the middle. That a lot is going to change, but there are going to be major aspects that are going to still be running down the middle. Is that a pretty fair assessment?

Eric Kelderman  27:14

I think out of necessity, yeah. I think, you know, the Biden administration and Congress are going to have to find a way to work across the lines a little bit, at least, or at least within their own caucus to serve both moderates and progressives. So yeah, I think that the tone of the rhetoric, certainly coming from the White House will change significantly. And I think that the attitude towards higher education will be less punitive, certainly, from the White House. And then it remains to be seen how quickly and how effectively democrats can corral their caucus to get some legislation through that will bring some money to higher ed.

Tyler Jacobson  27:59

Okay. Well, I appreciate your time, Eric, if anybody wants to see Eric’s other articles, as he said, he works for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And then I will put their link in as well as you [can] follow him on Twitter.

Eric Kelderman  28:18


Tyler Jacobson  28:21

Okay @etkeld. And so I greatly appreciate your input and your insight and your time. And we look forward to seeing what actually happens after all the speculation is over and we see what the next year looks like. So thank you for your time, and for joining us Eric.

Eric Kelderman  28:40

Thanks, Tyler. It was my pleasure. I appreciate it. 

Tyler Jacobson  28:42


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