Higher education leaders, mired in pessimism predating the pandemic, are probably beginning to burst from newfound optimism. The pandemic is receding, and a collegiate savior, Joe Biden, is pursuing a highly progressive agenda with all sorts of goodies for higher education, starting with free college for many. I will predict, however, that optimism may fade fast.
Twice in the last century in America there was what in another context Chairman Mao once called a Great Leap Forward towards progressive Nirvana, namely the New Deal (1930s) and the Great Society (1960s). Joe Biden is proposing equally sweeping new entitlements and regulatory initiatives. But he is doing so from a position of relative political weakness. In 1933, when FDR inaugurated the New Deal, he had just captured 89% of the electoral votes in a landslide, losing only six states. There were 25 more Democrats than Republicans in the Senate, and 193 more in the House. Similarly, when LBJ launched his Great Society in 1964 (near where this is being written on the Ohio University campus), the Dems dominated Congress. In the 89th Congress (1965-66), more than two thirds of both senators and representatives were Democrats.
President Biden clearly won the presidency, but he is not proposing massive change from a position of great strength, not even having full control in the Senate and a precarious one in the House. Still, he is President so he should be able to get some of his ideas done. He had overwhelming support in the higher education community that showered his campaign with both money and ideas. His wife has long taught at a community college, while his vice president, Kamala Harris, had two parents with Stanford-Berkeley academic backgrounds, both with PhDs.
Biden will push several pro-college initiatives including free community college and expanded Pell Grants, but also other things such as massive assistance for historically black colleges and universities, and the easing of visa restrictions for international students wishing to study at American schools. He probably will get in somewhat diluted form much of what he wants.
But other clouds are on the horizon, more economic and demographic than political. The economy grew more than six percent in the first quarter, and businesses are often having trouble getting employees (since for many, taking government payouts is more remunerative than a job). The stock market and corporate profits are sky high. Yet as an economic historian who observed past super booms, this reminds me too much of the U.S. right before the Great Crash of 1929 or even the financial crisis of 2007-08. The Fed is dropping money out of airplanes (or the equivalent) and robust inflation appears to be coming. The housing market is suffering from irrational exuberance.
Moreover, the nations fiscal capacity is dramatically weakened by profligate and irresponsible deficit spending that shortly likely will erode the nations lead in world finance and the huge advantages associated with having the worlds reserve currency. Some of that spending is higher ed-related: The Wall Street Journals Josh Mitchell recently showed disguised federal student loan losses are hundreds of billions of dollars. As interest rates inevitably rise, the real cost of funding deficit spending will grow dramatically and an era of forced fiscal austerity will likely evolve. This could have an unintended effect of reducing the attractiveness of American universities to young people of the world.
Most college students are under 25 years of age, and the proportion and even the absolute number of the population who are young and potential enrollees is stagnating. Up until recently, that was offset by a growth in the proportion of young people wanting to attend college, but that growth has waned with increasing doubts on the part of young people that college is an ideal investment. New competition from alternatives such as coding academies is another reality.
Compounding all of this is the fact that polling data suggest that Americans are losing faith in colleges. Public support has waned. Colleges are far too woke and expensive for many Americans. So university presidents perhaps can briefly rejoice that the annus horribilis associated with the pandemic may be ending, but soon they will realize the road ahead will not be a very smooth one.