Fulfilling promises made during his campaign, President Joe Biden and his administration have taken swift action on a number of items with both immediate and future implications for higher education institutions and their students.
Federal Student Loan Repayment Freeze
One immediately impactful change is the extension of a pause on the collection of federal student loan payments for borrowers. This provision, first passed in the CARES Act and then extended several times by the Trump administration, has now been extended by the Biden administration through September 30, 2021. The administration made clear that the extension of this COVID-19 relief benefit would contain the same terms for borrowers as when it initially passed, including that suspended payments will continue to count toward a borrower's progress in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and other federal loan forgiveness programs.
The president has directed the secretary of Homeland Security to take actions aimed at "preserving and fortifying" the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. This action is in direct contrast with the previous administration, which had been attempting to eliminate DACA since 2017.
In a separate executive order, the new administration also repealed the previous administration’s travel ban policy that prevented many international students and scholars from primarily Muslim-majority and African countries from entering the United States.
The president also sent a proposed immigration bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act, to Congress. If passed, the bill, another campaign promise of Biden’s, would allow DACA recipients to immediately apply for permanent residency. Undocumented students who are not DACA recipients would be permitted to apply for temporary legal status if the bill passes, and could apply for permanent resident status after five years, pending background security checks and payment of their taxes. The bill also would make it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States and would provide work authorization to dependents of nonimmigrants with H-1B visas and prevent them from aging out of their visa status at age 21.
COVID-19 Data Tracking
The new administration also has ordered greater COVID-19 data tracking and central collection of that data at the Department of Education. While much of the order focuses on K-12 issues, it also called on ED and the Department of Health and Human Services to provide “evidence-based guidance to institutions of higher education on safely reopening for in-person learning, which shall take into account considerations such as the institution’s setting, resources, and the population it serves.” These efforts will further involve the creation of the “Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse,” to share best practices for keeping colleges and universities safe during the pandemic by working in conjunction with institutions across the country.
The president also rescinded his predecessor’s executive order regarding diversity training among federal grant recipients. The rescinded order prohibited certain types of training that “inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” Biden criticized the order for its attempts to ignore issues of systemic racism, sexism, and other prejudices present in many workplaces.
Biden also issued an executive order directing his entire administration to “prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and to fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” As part of this action, the order requires all federal agencies to review “all existing orders, regulations, guidance documents, policies, programs, or other agency actions” that may run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This review may result in federal guidance changes for colleges and universities in the coming months.
The president issued further directions to federal agencies to postpone rules for 60 days that “have been published in the Federal Register . . . but not taken effect.” The guidance, issued as a memo, also suggests: “For rules postponed in this manner, during the 60-day period . . . consider opening a 30-day comment period to allow interested parties to provide comments about issues of fact, law, and policy raised by those rules, and consider pending petitions for reconsideration involving such rules.”
This direction may hold implications for changes made to H-1B visa issuance by the previous administration. The changes were set to take effect in March, but this review may further delay or halt them entirely. NACUBO joined amicus briefs in two legal challenges to the rule changes, where colleges and universities were primary challengers to the rule, and joined several comment letters to both agencies expressing concern with both the timing and content of the changes.