The federal government has long funded colleges primarily through a voucher system. It awards money to students through programs such as the Pell Grant, which flows to whichever schools they attend.
But one of President-elect Joe Biden's lesser-known higher education proposals would shake up this system. He has pitched new funding for colleges that would be distributed akin to the federal Title I program, which sends money to K-12 schools with high shares of low-income students.
A similar program for higher education would give grants to four-year colleges with large numbers of Pell-eligible learners, according to Biden's campaign website. Schools could use funds for student services and emergency aid.
Colleges with fewer resources could broadly benefit from more funding, higher education experts said, but setting up this type of program could be tricky.
"This is so fundamentally different from the way that federal aid to students is distributed now that the most basic question is whether or not it can work," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, which has no position on the proposal.
Here, we explore what a version of Title I for higher education could look like and the challenges it could face from Congress.
How would Title I for higher education be structured?
The federal government uses a complicated series of formulas to distribute Title I funding to states and K-12 school districts. The Biden administration could set up a similar system for higher education by awarding funding to colleges based on the number and share of Pell-eligible students they enroll.
Pell Grant recipients are often used in policy as a proxy for low-income students, though it's an imperfect measure. Students will generally qualify for a Pell Grant if their families are expected to contribute less toward their educational costs than the maximum award, which is $6,345 in the 2020-21 academic year.
Two-third of students whose families make $30,000 or less received a Pell Grant in the 2011-12 academic year, although higher incomes can also qualify, according to a 2017 Brookings report.
Colleges serving many disadvantaged students could count on consistent funding through a Title I structure similar to K-12, but it risks becoming complicated. Lawmakers already squabble over the Title I formulas for K-12 districts, accusing them of sending money to the wrong places.
"If you're putting a lot of money on the stump, the formula fight becomes pretty brutal, which is another controversy in putting such a plan together," Hartle said.
Another system would have schools compete for grants. However, this would be "a much less uniform way of dispersing funds," said Tamara Hiler, director of education at left-leaning think tank Third Way, which pitched Title I for higher ed in a 2018 memo.
It's unclear whether Biden would take one of these routes. His campaign website offers few details on the proposal and his transition team did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.
What are the potential benefits and challenges?
The proposed funding system stands to send more money to schools that enroll high numbers of low-income students, such as regional comprehensive universities and historically Black colleges.
"It really does try to take into account the institutions that are doing their part to serve an above-average share of Pell students or other underserved populations," Hiler said. Such a program would also recognize that doing so requires more resources and could encourage more schools to enroll low-income students, Hiler added.
Yet it's unclear what such a plan would cost. And one criticism of Title I for K-12 schools is that it doesn't provide enough funding per student to make a difference.
It also marks a sharp departure from how the federal government funds colleges and universities, Hartle said, adding that a divided Congress would have to solve "serious, challenging design questions" about how it would work.
Democrats lost seats in the House but kept their majority, while control of the Senate depends on two run-off elections in Georgia this January. "Given the political environment, significant new departures in federal policy in any area could be very hard to come by," Hartle said. "Not just education — any area."
Which colleges could benefit?
Biden's campaign website says the funding would go to four-year colleges, but it's an open question whether that would include private nonprofits. The plan would likely prioritize public colleges, some policy experts said, but many private nonprofits serve large shares of low-income students as well.
"To start slicing institutions based on the old demarcation of public versus private, especially in terms of allocating resources, is an unnecessary and archaic way of thinking about releasing funds," said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF, which lobbies on behalf of private HBCUs.
An average of 72% of undergraduates attending private, four-year nonprofit HBCUs in the 2018-19 academic year received Pell Grants. That's compared to an average of 39% for all undergraduates attending private, four-year nonprofits, according to an Education Dive analysis of federal data.
Higher education experts said the incoming administration and Democratic lawmakers likely wouldn't want to extend the new funding to for-profit institutions. "That would be a pretty clear nonstarter for every single Democrat on the Hill, or at least in the Senate," Hiler said.
Biden's transition team didn't answer which colleges would be able to participate. He has pitched separate grant programs for two-year institutions to fund student services and provide emergency financial aid.
Will there be accountability metrics?
Biden's plan doesn't mention accountability measures, but policy experts say they could help ensure the funds are being put to good use. "If we're investing extra funds in schools, I think it's reasonable to want them to improve," said Wesley Whistle, senior advisor for education policy and strategy at New America, a left-leaning think tank.
Common accountability metrics include graduation or loan repayment rates. But any measure would need to keep equity in mind so it's not punishing schools with larger shares of disadvantaged students, Whistle said.
He and Third Way's Hiler recommend that a Title I program be paired with stronger accountability measures for all colleges, not just those receiving supplemental funds. The U.S. Department of Education under the Trump administration released regulations concerning accreditation that policy experts say weaken oversight of colleges.
"If we had better basic federal guardrails in general," Hiler said, "that could be the key to unlock some of those better outcomes."