Higher Learning Advocates’ Reactions to Biden’s State of the Union


Higher Learning Advocates staff are weighing in after President Biden delivered his State of the Union address to America Tuesday night. Here’s our analysis of both highlights — and missed opportunities — related to supporting today’s students.

Julie Peller, executive director

The president talked about critical domestic policy issues, including health care, green jobs, and infrastructure. He also talked about ensuring America’s global competitiveness and preserving America’s democracy. And, he touched on the need to invest in education. I do wish he would have spent more time on that last point. Because investing in people is investing in the talent the country needs to achieve all the other goals.

That’s not to ignore the fact that the current system needs reform to meet the needs of today’s students. Last night, the president asked Congress to finish the job. To finish the job, it’s time to think differently about the education/training/work pipeline. Ensuring that we can “offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not” should start with creating a no-wrong-door system where people can gain the skills and credentials they need throughout their lives.

Tanya Ang, managing director, advocacy

As the President spoke about America’s global competitiveness and his desire to ensure supply chains start and stay in America, my mind immediately went to the role postsecondary education plays in making that happen. Those who work in supply chain management, factories, etc. need access to high-quality training. Today’s students do not always go through the two- or four-year route, but instead ebb and flow through higher education as they need the necessary training to get them to their next step in their career. This is especially important as technology continues to improve and change. We need to create opportunities for lifelong learners to be able to access affordable and quality education when they need it.

The president also discussed the bipartisan infrastructure package that was passed in 2021. This package was immensely helpful for today’s students, ensuring those who are eligible for the Pell Grant have access to free or affordable Wi-Fi to stay enrolled in school. In the FY 23 appropriations package, no additional funding was added to that program so it is important that Congress continues to fund that program, even post-pandemic.

What was missing in that package, but what I hope gets passed soon, is the bipartisan, bicameral PATH to College Act which helps build and enhance public transportation to colleges around the country so students have reliable and affordable transportation to and from school. Students cannot be successful in school if they are unable to get to school.

To help the economy stay strong, ensuring access to higher education and that basic needs are met while students are in school is imperative. The GI Bill is a strong indicator that proved the impact student-centric programs have on the economy. In fact, for every $1 spent on the GI Bill after WWII, $7 was returned to the economy. The GI BIll covers not just the costs of education but provides a housing allowance to help offset or cover the cost of housing, food, and other expenses, which allows students to focus on their education. When basic needs are met, students are able to focus better on their education as they are not worried about where their next meal will come from or how they will pay their electricity bill. It allows them the chance to complete their education in a timely manner and become strong contributors to the American workforce and economy.

Finally, I always appreciate (and love!) hearing a president highlight higher education, including Pell Grant increases, connecting access to two-year degrees, and career training. For me, the following clip sums it up well.

“Jill, who teaches full-time, has an expression: ‘Any nation that out-educates us will out-compete us.’

Folks, you all know 12 years is not enough to win the economic competition for the 21st Century.”

For America to stay globally competitive and maintain a robust economy, we must continue to prioritize postsecondary education and ensure it is accessible and affordable for all.

Mario Da Costa, advocacy director

Right now, we have the opportunity to reimagine how we support the nation’s current and future learners by meeting them where they are today.

The president’s speech highlighted the importance of working toward: multiple pathways to a better life, access to two- and four-year degrees, job and career training, and every opportunity in between, really stating the quiet part out loud — ALL postsecondary learning COUNTS.

America’s economic, social, and climate strategic policies depend on an upskilled and agile workforce. When it comes to meeting that demand, now is the time to support and invest in postsecondary education.

So, how do we support the success of postsecondary learners in the U.S.? Access to affordable and reliable child care, secure and affordable housing options, and financial flexibility of programs meant to help students of all backgrounds succeed like Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and short-term Pell are good places to start.

And, one final note I’d be remiss to overlook as a Philly resident and diehard Eagles fan, why wasn’t the first lady wearing green? However, it’s still safe to assume Dr. Jill Biden is rooting for her home team — go Birds!

Richard Davis Jr., policy associate

It was encouraging to hear the President call for increased access to in-school mental health care services for young people, especially as many continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that 60% of today’s students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem and that untreated problems can contribute to lower academic performance and a higher probability of dropping out. As we try to re-engage the 39+ million adults out there with some college and no credential, it’s important that we don’t add to this number by inadequately addressing the mental health crisis plaguing today’s students.

What was missed was a chance to uplift the importance of federal emergency aid in supporting today’s students and the call to continue funding it. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis of the impact of student emergency aid grants disbursed through the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). These funds helped more than 18 million students weather the unanticipated financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and kept many enrolled. While this funding has been exhausted, the need still exists to ensure that students don’t have to drop out of higher education due to an unexpected financial hardship related to food, housing, mental health, or child care — which happens even without a pandemic.

Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, managing director, policy and research

Honestly, I was delighted to hear him talk about the importance of higher education. The president’s calls for making “education an affordable ticket to the middle class” and that “12 years of education is not enough” underscored that community colleges and higher education remain front of mind for the president.

Although he didn’t explicitly mention student parents, he referenced a range of policies to help them access higher ed. Most importantly, he talked about the importance of affordable, quality child care. In many ways, child care is the principal barrier for parents who want to return to school and get a postsecondary credential. A call for increasing Pell Grants was music to my ears, since higher ed affordability remains such a barrier for this population as they try to balance school and family.

And, as many of my fellow advocates may be tired of me saying, health insurance is a college completion issue. Increasing access to Medicaid meant so many more parenting students themselves, and not just their children, got access to affordable health care. I hope the states that haven’t adopted Medicaid expansion will consider how the lack of access to affordable health care remains a barrier to parents who can’t return to school.



Higher Learning Advocates
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