Next Steps Uncertain After Bipartisan Agreement

The U.S. Senate education committee announced a bipartisan amendment that would permanently fund HBCUs and simplify the FAFSA. Its chances in the House are uncertain, and advocates disagree on whether an HEA authorization will follow.

December 5, 2019
 
Getty Images/Mark Wilson
Senator Patty Murray, left, and Senator Lamar Alexander

Higher education advocates are largely supportive of a new bipartisan amendment on federal funding for historically black colleges and universities, but some point to challenges in the road ahead.

"We’re hearing some rumblings that there could be some opposition from the tax community on the House side," Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network, said.

The bipartisan proposal, announced Tuesday by the U.S. Senate education committee, would amend legislation passed in September and make permanent $255 million in annual funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. The FUTURE Act, as the legislation is formally called, would also simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and eliminate paperwork for the 7.7 million federal student loan borrowers currently on income-driven repayment plans by automating income recertification.

The funds for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions would come from an estimated $2.8 billion in cost savings over 10 years from the simplification of the FAFSA, which could reduce improper payments and administrative costs in the student aid system.

The amendment is the latest attempt at compromise after Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the education committee, proposed a package of bills that was seen as a piecemeal approach to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Alexander had hoped to push through a reauthorization before he retires from the Senate next year but has been blocked by Democrats who want a comprehensive bill that addresses accountability and affordability.

Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, issued a statement commending Alexander and committee co-chair Senator Patty Murray, a Washington State Democrat, “on their willingness to work together to help advance student success in higher education.”

“Community colleges serve the majority of minority students in the United States and anything that removes barriers to attendance helps our colleges to increase student success and completion. We look forward to working together across the aisle to advance legislation that supports these initiatives to decrease the achievement gaps,” he said in the statement.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said the association strongly supports the proposal but he added that it's too early to speculate if it will get the support of the full Senate.

While Hartle hopes the Senate will push the amendment through quickly, "Having said that, any piece of legislation that is moving in the final days of the congressional session attracts amendments like a magnet attracts steel filings."

It's possible other lawmakers could amend the FUTURE Act in a way that would undermine its success.

"Nothing seems to go the way one would anticipate on Capitol Hill these days," Hartle said.

Some advocates also doubt that reauthorization will happen with this Congress.

"I think it’s unlikely at this time that the Democrats will be willing to do anything else in the piecemeal approach," Warick said. "I'm not anticipating other bills coming out before this Congress is over."

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, agreed that it's unlikely more will get done with the Higher Education Act, given the number of legislative days left on the calendar and congressional lawmakers' preoccupation with impeachment and funding for 2020-2021 education award grants.

The presidential race, where many Democrats are touting student aid as a priority, also further complicates things, Hartle said.

However, some see this compromise as potential momentum for broader higher education legislation.

David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that while the association is pleased with the proposed amendment, this "is not a substitute in any way for a comprehensive Higher Education Act bill."

"The reaching of a compromise may bode well for that kind of movement," he said. "We do still think it's possible."

Left out of the current bipartisan proposal are key pieces that could impact community colleges, such as extending Pell grant eligibility to short-term programs and incarcerated students and tying Pell Grants to inflation.

Tamara Hiler, director of education at the center-left think tank Third Way, said she is glad that Alexander is "no longer holding money for HBCUs and other MSIs hostage" and hopes the bipartisan effort will continue with a reauthorization.

"We know the House is still moving forward with their comprehensive rewrite of the law, and we hope that Senators Murray and Alexander will continue their efforts to do the same in the Senate," Hiler said in an email. "This bill takes the pressing HBCU and MSI funding question off the table, which will hopefully clear the way for the Senate to move forward with a more comprehensive approach that addresses other areas of bipartisan agreement like 90-10 and lifting the ban on student-level data."

In the interim, the simplification to the FAFSA would eliminate up to 22 questions on the 108-question form, which could increase the number of students who complete it.

However, the more significant adjustment would come as a change to the Internal Revenue Code.​

The proposed change would allow the Internal Revenue Service to share students' and parents' financial data directly with the U.S. Department of Education, according to Draeger.

"Then you’re taking applicant error out of the question," Draeger said. "The data that then is inserted into the FAFSA is already verifiable data."

Draeger believes the approval of the amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives will be "more complicated" because lawmakers won't be as familiar with the legislation, which was generated in the Senate.

Warick foresees potential problems because the changes to the FAFSA would affect how tax information is used. Right now, the IRS is not allowed to use tax information for nontax purposes, she said, with exceptions for national security and crime.

"This would be the first exception for positive change on that list," she said. "I think the tax community wants to be very certain before they make that change, and they also are very new to the complications that exist with the FAFSA."

Draeger is still optimistic that the amendment will ultimately pass.

"The fact that these two things are tied together -- minority-serving institutions' funding and the FAFSA act -- I think creates a lot of momentum for this to keep going in the House," he said.

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