Four-year private colleges are feeling threatened by Biden’s infrastructure plan

By Sarah Siock

The announcement of President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan revealed the administration’s intentions of major investments for high education including $12 million for community colleges, however, many four-year universities see this investment as a potential threat to their enrollment.

Biden’s plan was released on March 31 and private four-year universities, such as Rider, do not have access to funds in the bill if it were passed as written. The plan sets aside money to address physical and technological infrastructure needs at community colleges. Additionally, the plan includes $15 billion to create up to 200 centers of excellence to serve as research incubators at historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, according to Community College Daily.

Biden’s exclusion of four-year universities and colleges in the plan has been met with criticism.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs for the American Council on Education, the main group that advocates on behalf of higher education told Politico, “A lot of four-year schools, especially four-year schools in areas where demography is reducing enrollment at institutions now, would look at this and see an existential threat.”

According to Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo, the university will be actively monitoring the legislative process surrounding Biden’s infrastructure bill, both as an individual institution and as members of major higher education associations that serve as the university’s key lobby groups on federal legislation. Rider is a member of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, National Association of College and University Business Officers and American Council on Education.

Dell’Omo said, “If funding was expanded to include private universities, and based on the parameters of that funding, we would assess if the funding addresses certain capital needs of Rider and if we qualify for the funding. If so, we will increase our efforts to try to secure the funding accordingly.”

Investing in infrastructure has been a key component of Rider’s strategic plan that began implementation in 2017. Currently, Rider is in the process of putting an addition to the Science and Technology Center. The university also fundraised for future renovations to the Alumni Gym. However, Dell’Omo said beyond these two projects, no other infrastructure projects are being considered unless the university receives external fundraising dollars.

Biden’s decision to invest in community college aligns with his campaign promises. Biden voiced support for free community college when he was vice president under Barack Obama and the issue was a talking point during the 2020 presidential campaign trail. Additionally, first lady Jill Biden has voiced her support for community college as a professor at a community college in Virginia.

Biden’s infrastructure plan says, “Investing in community college facilities and technology helps protect the health and safety of students and faculty, address education deserts (particularly for rural communities), grow local economies, improve energy efficiency and resilience, and narrow funding inequities in the short-term.”

Political science professor Micah Rasmussen provided insight into why politicians have shifted their focus to community college.

Rasmussen said, “Public officials view community colleges as the lowest-cost option to serve the highest number of students. If President Biden were to miss the chance to keep his campaign promise of free community college, he’d not only lose one of the best prospects of gaining bipartisan support for part of his agenda, but he’d also lose out on one of the tangible ways he can deliver economic opportunity to more Americans. I do think it’s important for him to not leave four-year schools out of the equation, and I don’t expect he will. If he can find ways to draw on the particular strengths and the contributions of institutions like ours, then his higher education policy can be a win-win proposition for everyone.”

Rasmussen also pointed out that Biden’s American Rescue Plan targeted $40 billion to a wider cross-section of the nation’s colleges and universities, especially those with modest endowments and high numbers of Pell Grant recipients.

“He and his administration clearly understand that four-year schools, both public and private, play a critical role in helping to serve all of the nation’s higher education students,” said Rasmussen.

Despite federal funds for infrastructure at four-year universities still yet to be determined, Dell’Omo said campus facilities are critically important to providing a vibrant living-learning community at Rider.

Dell’Omo said, “The quality, appearance and functionality of a campus sends pwerful messaging to all of our constituents, including prospective students.

It speaks to an institution’s commitment to quality–academically, safety-wise, athletically, student development, and a strong sense of community and place.

These are all critical components of Rider’s value proposition. And even though we are going to be limited in our efforts to continue with some of the major renovations we still need and want to do given the current economic conditions, we will do all we can to further move the needle in the right direction.”

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