Joe Biden promised free college during his campaign, and now that he holds office, that plan looks threatening to private institutions like Otterbein University.   

“The Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School” aims to make college accessible to Americans who could not afford higher education. The extensive plan includes free college, debt relief and doubling the value of the Pell Grant, a federal subsidy that is given to students who show financial need. While all of this will increase students enrolled in college, it looks like the Biden Administration forgot about small private universities.   

Biden’s proposal will send students whose families make less than $125,000 a year to public universities and community colleges, tuition-free. Eight out of 10 households in America fall under this figure. This is a threat to private universities because many students will attend a public or community college solely based on cost. Enrollment will decrease by 7%-14% at private universities if this plan is adopted, according to a study conducted by Georgetown during the election. 

Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, the vice president of enrollment management at Otterbein, believes this portion of the plan is problematic, saying, “If you create a program that only supports public universities, the likelihood is that initially, you would see lots and lots of families flock to public universities. That would be difficult for us and all small privates.”   


The Biden Administration is also calling to invest more than $70 billion in private and public minority-serving universities. They plan on investing in grants and infrastructure in minority-serving universities because they serve a disproportionate number of low-income students and are severely under-resourced, according to the administration’s website. While those programs will support many future students, they are again bolstering the competition against small private colleges.    

The Pell Grant is an important metric when looking at the college plan. Biden’s team uses the percentage of Pell students at minority-serving universities to justify their huge investment. The same metric shows Ohio public and private universities have an equal percentage of Pell students according to Blackburn-Smith. He also said Otterbein has a higher ratio of Pell-eligible students than Ohio State University.

Blackburn-Smith contends that pushing families away from a small university creates a situation where students miss the benefits. He claims that Otterbein has a higher graduation rate than the average of Ohio public schools. “You’re going to force families that need small classes, that need being in a place where faculty are focused on teaching and engagement with students. It will not drive college completion,” Blackburn-Smith said.  


With all that said, these plans are just campaign promises. It is unclear when Biden will make these plans a reality. There is debate if free college is possible. Furthermore, the administration is proving they are focused on helping Americans with COVID-19, meaning college affordability is most likely on hold.   

Despite challenges Biden's plan hands to small universities, it will bring college participation up. Many parts of it benefit all universities. Doubling the Pell Grant’s value and making students in the DREAM program eligible to receive the Pell Grant are examples. The Biden team may even revise the plan to serve private colleges. However, the free college Biden campaigned with presents itself as a tradeoff that puts small private universities at a competitive disadvantage.