Higher education leaders in US hopeful that Trump’s unwelcoming policies will be overturned
US President Joseph R. Biden has, on his first day in office, instructed the US department of education to continue the pause on student loan payments and reversed Donald Trump’s executive order barring the federal government, its contractors and grant recipients, such as colleges and universities, from offering diversity training.
Observers of international education in the US breathed a sigh of relief on Biden’s victory, hoping that he would reset Trump-era policies widely viewed as being unwelcoming to international students and scholars.
Of the 17 executive orders signed by Biden on his first day as president, many pertained to education, according to a memo by Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff. One order instructs the pause on student loan payments, set to expire on January 31, to be continued till September 30.
Biden also signed a memorandum directing the secretary of homeland security to take actions aimed at “preserving and fortifying” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. A separate executive order repealed a controversial travel ban policy introduced by former president Trump that barred nationals from a group of mostly Muslim-majority and African countries from entering the US.
A White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said Biden sent his proposed immigration bill, the US Citizenship Act, to Congress on January 20. It includes provisions related to undocumented immigrants and legalisation, family-based and employment-based immigration, border security, immigration courts, and asylum seekers, according to a fact sheet.
The bill also “makes it easier for graduates of US universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States”, according to the fact sheet. It also would provide work authorisation to dependents of non-immigrants who have H-1B skilled worker visas — a group that would include college students — and prevent them from aging out of their visa status at age 21.
These initial actions by Biden were met with enthusiasm from educators across the US and were seen as both necessary and mostly “symbolic”. “Lawmakers should quickly act on the Biden administration’s immigration proposal, which includes a pathway to citizenship for dreamers among other long-needed reforms,” wrote American Council on Education president Ted Mitchell in a statement.
Mitchell also praised Biden’s plans “to correct a number of misguided immigration and visa policies” that impacted international students and “fed a perception that the United States no longer welcomes students from across the globe,” referencing Trump’s ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, also expected to be swiftly overturned.
Higher education groups praised the reversal of the ban, which initially caused chaos in higher education as students and scholars affiliated to American institutions found themselves stranded abroad. In the nearly four years since the travel ban was put in place, one week after Trump's inauguration, many higher education officials have argued the policy sent an unwelcoming message to students and scholars around the globe.
Many people believe Trump's policies and rhetoric contributed to the decline in new international students going to the US that began in the 2016-17 academic year.
The Trump administration did not finalise a proposed rule prior to the end of Trump’s term that would have fundamentally changed how student visas are awarded, requiring students to reapply every two or four years. Colleges had widely opposed the proposed rule, which was introduced in September.
Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an association of college leaders focused on immigration policy, noted other victories for higher education during the Trump administration. She cited the preservation of optional practical training, a programme that enables international students to stay and work in the US after graduating and that was widely seen as under threat during Trump's presidency.
She also cited various victories colleges had in court that blocked Trump administration policies, including a policy that would have made it easier for international students to accrue unlawful presence in the US — an outcome that could result in three- or 10-year bans on re-entry to this country future — and one that would have restricted the ability of international students to continue studying online during the ongoing pandemic.
Higher education groups also welcomed Biden’s renewed commitment to protecting the DACA programme, which provides protection against deportation and work authorisation to Dreamers, a group that includes many current college students and young alumni.
Feldblum noted the roles that Princeton University and the University of California played in suing the government over the Trump administration's attempted rescission of the policy. “We were just part of the collective effort, but there’s no doubt that higher education played a significant role.”
“We’re eager to get started on both rolling back the harms of the past four years and applaud the [Biden] administration for the actions they’re already taking and call upon all of higher education to now take a step in and engage in the legislative possibilities,” Feldblum was quoted by the media as saying.
For US students, Biden has already announced plans to tackle college affordability. He plans to make university’s tuition-free for those whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. Biden also wants to double the federal Pell Grant, awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. The maximum amount for the award is $6,345 for the 2020-21 academic year and is not repaid.
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