What the Election Results Mean for Higher Ed

(This story is being updated as news warrants.)

Tuesday’s midterm elections appeared likely to bring about a divided government in Washington, signaling an uptick in scrutiny of student-debt relief, Title IX, and racial-justice efforts. As of early Wednesday morning, Republicans seemed to have a slight edge in taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, though the sweeping “red wave” conservatives predicted did not materialize. Control of the chamber has yet to be called by news organizations.

Control of the Senate, which Democrats have held by the narrowest of margins since 2021, was also still unclear as votes continued to be tallied Tuesday night. If Democrats manage to hold onto the chamber, legislative momentum on any major higher-ed bills is unlikely, with Republicans likely to take the House. The Higher Education Act, which expired in 2013, seems likely to languish for another couple of years.

Still, if Republicans win the House, expect other types of action. Much of it could come from U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and the likely new chair of the House education committee.

Foxx has shown a clear interest in examining President Biden’s plan for debt relief, recently calling for an oversight hearing with the Education Department. The plan offers one-time forgiveness of $10,000 of student debt for all individual borrowers making under $125,000 per year, as well as up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. A federal court temporarily halted the rollout in October, but the Education Department has continued to accept applications from borrowers seeking relief.

Foxx outlined her party’s vision for higher-education reform at a September event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. On debt forgiveness, she said: “We are looking for ways to stop it.”

Republicans have traditionally been skeptical of federal efforts to crack down on for-profit colleges and to open up sweeping paths for debt forgiveness. For now, Biden’s Education Department can move forward with carrying out its new borrower-defense rules, which aim to make it easier for students who say they’ve been defrauded by a college to obtain loan relief, and proposing gainful-employment rules, which aim to ensure that students in career-education programs find jobs after graduation and can pay back loans.

While House Republicans wouldn’t be able to stop those processes unilaterally, they can hold hearings and send letters to the department to drum up opposition.

Title IX could also become more of a wedge issue in the next Congress, with the Biden administration set to finalize revised regulations interpreting the federal gender-equity law and how it applies to campus sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

The Education Department has proposed protecting sexual orientation and gender identity under Title IX, extending legal protections to transgender students — a move that has raised the ire of many conservatives. House Republicans introduced legislation last month that would restrict lessons on gender and sexuality for children, suggesting that LGBTQ issues in education are on lawmakers’ priority list.

Racial justice in education will be another issue to watch. Over the past two years, many red-state legislatures have passed laws that restrict teaching about race and sex. Their success in Tuesday’s election may prompt some lawmakers to double down on the strategy.

Federal action on the subject isn’t unprecedented: President Trump signed an executive order in 2020 banning certain kinds of diversity training at any recipients of federal grants, a category that included many colleges. Biden rescinded the order on his first day in office, but language from the order has ended up in many state laws.

Individual Races

For three candidates in both federal and state elections who campaigned on criticizing higher education, two won their elections, while one race remained too close to call.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has targeted the state’s colleges and universities as ideological echo chambers, decisively won re-election, cementing his status as a prime challenger to former President Donald J. Trump should he decide to wage a comeback run for president in two years. DeSantis’s victory also gives him more time to make his mark on the state’s public-college system, including through new policy. (Jason Garcia, an investigative reporter in Florida, reported this year that DeSantis stopped short of trying to impose his most aggressive policies on higher ed. A new term may give him a new chance to trot them out.)

Angst about DeSantis’s influence on public colleges has been a key feature of his tenure — as has opposition to it. Academics are among those who have mounted a legal challenge to the governor’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts how instructors can teach about topics like race and gender. In defending against the challenge, the state made the controversial declaration that classroom speech is no different than government speech — a striking disavowal of academic-freedom rights.

During his victory speech on Tuesday, DeSantis declared: “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat in Ohio, also prevailed. Vance, author of the 2016 bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, has been especially aggressive in his rhetoric against higher education. He has declared that “universities do not pursue knowledge and truth” but “deceit and lies” and has adopted the Richard Nixon quote, “The professors are the enemy.”

Among the yet-to-be-called races was the Arizona gubernatorial election between Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs. Lake had publicly targeted Arizona State University and its president, Michael Crow, during a dispute about televised interviews with the candidates involving Arizona PBS, which is owned by Arizona State. She vowed to start “cleaning up shop” at Arizona State if she were elected.

Meanwhile, a candidate who took an explicit pro-higher-ed stance prevailed: Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico’s Democratic governor who campaigned on her record of college-affordability programs, decisively won re-election.

Voting Patterns and Ballot Initiatives

College has increasingly emerged as a dividing line in the nation’s politics. Full analyses of voter data weren’t available Tuesday night, but one exit poll found that white college-educated voters made up a larger share of the electorate than in the last midterm election — 40 percent in 2022, compared with 31 percent in 2018. A majority of voters in that group have voted for Democrats in recent elections.

Exit poll data also showed that young voters preferred Democrats by a roughly 28-point margin.

College students traditionally don’t turn out well in midterm elections, and their turnout rates weren’t immediately clear on Tuesday. Videos showed students in Michigan, Arizona, and other swing states waiting in long lines to vote — reigniting debate about the closure of on-campus polling places and policies that make it harder for students to vote.

Ballot initiatives on abortion were top of mind for many young voters. Vermont voters approved a measure enshrining abortion access in their state constitution. Michigan and California voters did the same. In Kentucky, voters rejected a proposed amendment that would ban the right to an abortion.

The highest-profile ballot initiative directly affecting higher ed this cycle was in Arizona, where an initiative would allow undocumented students who graduated from Arizona high schools to receive in-state tuition at public colleges. Proposition 308, which was too close to call as of Tuesday night, could affect more than 3,600 students.

Currently, undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition, which is up to three times higher. Undocumented students aren’t eligible for federal financial aid and often come from low-income families, limiting their options for paying for college. Arizona voters barred undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition in 2006. Twenty states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition; counting Arizona, six states have blocked it.

Next door in New Mexico, voters were poised to approve a public-education bond referendum, which will issue $216 million in bonds for improvements to public colleges, special public schools, and tribal schools.

In California, voters appeared on track to approve a $5.3-billion bond request from the Los Angeles Community College District, which would pay for upgrades to campus infrastructure, among other things. Voters in Texas approved a $770-million bond request from the Austin Community College District, which will support two new campuses.

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