CONGRESSIONAL UPDATES AND NEWS
Senate HELP Chair Introduces Narrow HEA Bill
On September 26, U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced S. 2557, the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019. The bill was introduced in response to legislation that sought to extend expiring funding for minority-serving institutions (MSI), which had previously passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Senator Alexander's legislation is largely based on bipartisan bills primarily addressing the Pell Grant program and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Senator Alexander's efforts can be seen as an effort to jumpstart Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization negotiations with his Democratic counterpart, HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA). Those negotiations have stalled over policy disagreements related to campus safety and Senator Murray's insistence on a comprehensive reauthorization of HEA. Because the legislation is not a comprehensive reauthorization, it is unlikely to gain support from Senate Democrats.
Senator Alexander has also indicated interest in incorporating additional legislation, including the College Transparency Act, which would create a student unit record system that would include programmatic-level outcomes for programs of study at institutions of higher education.
It is also expected that U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) will introduce a comprehensive HEA reauthorization bill largely based on his Aim Higher legislation from the 115th Congress, which will likely only receive support from House Democrats. Given the move toward partisan HEA bills in both chambers, a reauthorization of HEA during this current Congress is unlikely at this time.
Below is an overview of the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019:
The bill would provide mandatory funding for programs that support minority-serving institutions including Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISI), known as the Title III, Part F programs. This funding expired at the end of fiscal year 2019 and the bill would extend permanent mandatory funding for these grant programs.
Pell Grant Program
A significant part of the legislation is devoted to the Pell Grant program. One proposal would make it possible to auto-qualify students for maximum Pell Grants if they meet certain criteria such as qualifying for certain means-tested benefits. Building on both congressional and Trump Administration support, the bill would make individuals who are confined or incarcerated eligible for Pell Grants for approved prison education programs. Additionally, the bill would make short-term certificate programs that include a minimum of 150 hours of instruction eligible for Pell Grants. Unlike previous congressional proposals, the Student Aid Improvement Act does not have a limitation on Pell Grant access to short-term programs at for-profit institutions. These programs would have to align with high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand industry sectors or occupations.
FAFSA and Award Letters
A long-sought priority for Chairman Alexander, the bill would reduce the number of applicant questions included on the FAFSA and allow for the transmittal of information between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education (ED). The Secretary of Education would be required to consult with state entities regarding additional data needs of state-based financial aid programs. The bill would also require ED to develop “early awareness” notification of the availability of federal financial aid aimed at low-income and first-generation students at middle and high school-levels and their families.
Additionally, the bill would require ED, in consultation with stakeholders, to “develop standard terminology and a standard format for financial aid offers,” which would be subject to a period of consumer testing. Institutions would be required to implement the final version of the Department’s standardized award offer letter no later than the 2023-2024 award year.
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Senate Appropriations Committee Releases FY 2020 Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Bill
On September 18, the Senate Committee on Appropriations released its recommendation for the fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and related agencies (LHHS). The bill would provide $178.3 billion in funding for healthcare, education, and workforce development, which is a slight increase above the $178.1 billion allocated in FY 2019. Highlights from the bill are below. While it is still uncertain if the Committee will markup the LHHS bill given current partisan divisions, this bill will likely serve as a marker for eventual negotiations with the House. Disagreements over several policy provisions are injecting uncertainty into how this and other appropriations bills will be considered.
The bill would raise the maximum Pell grant award to $6,330 from $6,195 for award year 2020-2021.
The bill would provide level funding for Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, the Federal Work-Study program, TRIO programs, GEAR UP program, foreign language programs, and the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program.
Report language accompanying the bill would direct ED to “pursue efforts to simplify and streamline the Return of Title IV Funds process for institutions of higher education and students.”
The bill would level fund the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at $615.5 million.
The bill would provide an additional $1 million for an Open Textbook Pilot grant program, for a total of $6 million.
The Committee also calls on ED to engage with institutions to address confusion on the foreign gift reporting requirements found in Section 117 of the Higher Education Act.
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ED Proposes Drastically Expanded Foreign Gift Reporting Requirements
In mid-September, the Department of Education (ED) published a proposed change to its collection of information related to institutional foreign gift and contracting reporting, which is authorized under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This notification follows on increased congressional interest in compliance with Section 117 reporting, particularly as it relates to Chinese involvement. Additionally, ED has launched investigations of several institutions regarding perceived underestimates in foreign gift contract reporting.
Higher education associations, such as the American Council of Education (ACE), have noted their strong concerns with the expansiveness of this proposed collection of information, which is well beyond what is in the statute for HEA Section 117. ACE has posted a summary of areas of concern they have identified, which include the reporting of all foreign gifts and contracts, not just those meeting the combined $250,000 threshold; the names and addresses of all donors; and the inclusion of donations to affiliated foundations; among other issues. The proposal also notes that ED estimates the reporting burden to comply with this expanded regulation would “average 10 hours per response, including time for reviewing instructions, searching existing data sources, gathering and maintaining the data needed, and completing and reviewing the collection of information.” Public comments are due on November 5.
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House Hearings on PSLF and Trauma-Informed Practices
The House Education and Labor Committee held September hearings on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and the role of trauma-informed practices in assisting students affected by gun violence. While Congress continues to struggle to advance legislation concerning gun violence, members of the Committee and witnesses discussed various issues including toxic stress; adverse childhood experiences; the impact of poverty, violence, and trauma on students and teachers; and the importance of early detection, among other issues. With competing political and legislative priorities, it is unlikely that significant policies devoted to addressing gun violence and trauma-informed practices will advance.
The PSLF hearing, "Broken Promises: Examining the Failed Implementation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program," focused on difficulties borrowers have had accessing the program and the Department of Education's (ED) implementation. Hearing witness Melissa Emery-Arras, Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), noted shortcomings in the information ED provides to loan servicers as it relates to the PSLF program. She also noted that GAO recommends that the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) and the PSLF program be combined to make it easier for borrowers to access.
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Legislative Bills of Note
H.R. 4497 (Rep. Shalala, D-FL)- Protecting Student Aid Act. This bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to make create a Chief Enforcement Officer within the Federal Student Aid office of ED to handle cases of fraud or deceptive practices by covered entities.
H.R. (Rep. Johnson, D-TX)- MSI STEM Achievement Act. This bill would aim to improve the quality of undergraduate STEM education and enhance the research capacity at the nation’s HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, and for other purposes.
H.R. 2528 (Rep. Johnson, D-TX)- STEM Opportunities Act. This bill would direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to ensure that federal science agencies and higher education are fully engaging groups who are traditionally engaged in STEM fields. This would be done by collecting data on the demographics of faculty and researchers, partnering with tribal universities and colleges, and expanding current research opportunities for minority scientists.
S. 2367 (Senator Smith, D-MN)- Addressing Teacher Shortages Act of 2019. This bill would direct the ED to create an Addressing Teacher Shortages Program which would award grants to local education agencies. Grants may fund residency and mentoring programs, recruitment, or other strategies to increase the teacher workforce.
H.R. 4525 (Rep. Lee, D-CA)- Student Support Act. This bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to direct the Secretary of Education to make grants to States for assistance in hiring additional school-based mental health and student service providers.