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Higher Education Policy Newsletter

April 3, 2020 — Lewis-Burke Associates LLC

As COVID-19 continues to impact the country, higher education has not been immune to the human capital and economic impacts of the public health crisis.  With institutions shifting delivery of instruction online, limiting access to campus, and pausing research, efforts are being made to ensure higher education is able to address the mounting costs and toll of the pandemic.  As highlighted below, advocacy efforts ensured inclusion of students and institutions in a legislative spending package aimed at addressing COVID-19 impacts (H.R. 748 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act).  While CARES will support access to emergency aid for students and funding for institutions, there is a general acknowledgement that these initial efforts will need to be supplemented in future stimulus packages.  Other areas that future legislative efforts will need to address include mental health supports, assistance for reengaging international students and faculty, increased broadband and technology infrastructure, and incorporating knowledge of distance learning into teacher preparation, among other efforts.

In non-COVID-19 news, several of the higher education associations sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) seeking a delay in regulatory efforts around Title IX and section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA).  The Title IX campus safety regulations have been expected to be released for several months now and may still be promulgated shortly.  Comments on ED’s section 117 foreign gift and contracts information collection were due March 11.  The higher education community letter notes, “given the serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions simply do not have the capacity to implement these proposals at this time.”


Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Becomes Law

Congress Rushes to Pass GI Bill Flexibility for Online Education

Secretary DeVos Testifies Before Senate Appropriations Committee 

Legislative Bills of Note  

ED Pushes Out New Regs on Distance Learning 

White House Releases Framework for the Development of a Federal HBCU Competitiveness Strategy 

ED Issues Guidance on COVID-19 Response 

Open Grant Competitions at ED

IES in a Time of Pandemic



Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Becomes Law
 On March 27, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which is the third legislative package passed related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The CARES Act includes several provisions related to higher education offering both new regulatory flexibility in federal financial aid and education grant programs as well as new emergency education grant funding for states, institutions, and students. 

Of the nearly $31 billion provided for the Department of Education for education stabilization in the CARES Act, the bill would fund $3 billion for states to use to support elementary, secondary, and higher education as well as $14.25 billion for institutions of higher education.  Funding for states would come with a maintenance of effort requirement, that the Secretary of Education could waive.  Eligible uses of funding include support to address technology costs associated with a transition to distance education.  Of the higher education-specific emergency fund, over $12 billion would be allocated to institutions based on a formula weighted toward institutional share of full-time Pell students.  At least 50 percent of those grants would have to be used by institutions for emergency grants for students.  Nearly $1.3 billion would be specifically available for minority-serving institutions and specific grants for institutions with demonstrated unmet need due to the COVID-19 crisis.  Institutions of higher education would be required, to the greatest extent practicable, to continue to pay employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to the pandemic. 

Higher education-related regulatory provisions of the bill of interest include:  

  • Waiving the institutional matching requirement for campus-based aid programs.  

  • Allowing institutions to transfer unused work-study funds to be used for supplemental grants. 

  •  Allowing institutions to award additional Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) funds to students impacted by COVID-19.  

  • Permitting institutions to issue Federal Work-Study payments to students who are unable to work due to workplace closures as a lump sum or in payments similar to paychecks.  

  • Excluding a term in which a student drops out due to COVID-19 from lifetime subsidized loan and Pell grant term limits.  

  • Waives requirement of students and institutions to return Title IV funds if student drops out due to COVID-19 and waives drop-out impact on Satisfactory Academic Progress.  

  • Requires Secretary of Education to defer, for six months, federal student loan payments without penalty to borrowers. 

  • Provides local workforce boards with additional flexibility to use funds received under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act for administrative costs, including for online resources.  

  • Allows Secretary of Education to waive allowable uses on TRIO, GEAR UP, Title III/V, Title VII grants to permit funding to go towards COVID-19 efforts.  

  • Permits institutions to request waivers from the Secretary of Education for financial matching requirements in competitive grant programs in the Higher Education Act.  

  • Allowing Governors to utilize reserved workforce funds on rapid response activities in response to the pandemic. 

Funding is also provided via the Department of Labor (DOL) for states to respond to the workforce impacts and layoffs resulting from the pandemic.  This funding would support the Dislocated Worker National Reserve funding stream.  Lewis-Burke's full analysis of the CARES Act is available here

 Congress Rushes to Pass GI Bill Flexibility for Online Education
In mid-March, the U.S. Senate and House rushed to pass S. 3503, legislation to ensure the continuation of GI Bill education and housing benefit use as many institutions converted student veterans to fully online programming.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced to School Certifying Officials the agency will continue to make benefit payments with online conversions and students will continue to receive the same monthly housing allowance payments through January 2021 or until the school resumes normal in-person operations.  

 Secretary DeVos Testifies Before Senate Appropriations Committee

On March 5, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request.  ED’s budget proposes evaluating if the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) should be a standalone entity, the largest investment in career and technical education (CTE) in U.S. history, and the consolidation of all K-12 grant programs into block grants for states.  Additionally, Secretary DeVos emphasized the Department’s desire to cap the amount of money graduate students are allowed to borrow following a question from Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) about if there is a connection between the increasing costs of higher education and the ability to easily borrow money.  

During the hearing, Republican Members praised Secretary DeVos for the Department’s proposed investment in CTE education, which would include $2 billion for Perkins Career and Technical Education state grants, as well as ED’s proposal to make the Second Chance Pell program for prisoners permanent.  Democrats expressed concern regarding the Department’s request to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.   In response to these concerns, Secretary DeVos stated “the administration feels incentivizing one type of work and job over another is uncalled for.”   

The hearing is the first step in a long appropriations process that will see members of Congress develop a funding bill for FY 2021.  The final bill will largely reject the cuts and consolidations proposed by Secretary DeVos, though increased funding for CTE could see support from federal policymakers interested in increasing support for workforce development.  

Legislative Bills of Note  

  • S. 3453 (Senator Blackburn, R-TN) - Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act.  The Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act would require program participation agreements between Confucius Institutes and U.S. institutions that house them to address the ways China exerts undue influence.  Senator Blackburn’s press release on the legislation is available here.   

  • S. 3222 (Senator Shaheen, D-NH) - Student and Student Athlete Opioid Misuse Prevention Act.  The Student and Student Athlete Opioid Misuse Prevention Act would authorize the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use to provide $10 million annually to support programs for students and student athletes, as well as training for teachers, administrators, athletic trainers, coaches and athletic directors specifically targeted at mitigating the risk of opioid misuse and overdose.  Senator Shaheen’s press release on the legislation is available here.  


ED Pushes Out New Regs on Distance Learning 

On April 1, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) proposed new rules on distance learning for higher education.  The rules emerged from negotiated rulemaking that reached consensus in 2019.  The proposed rules, “Distance Learning and Innovation,” address a wide range of policies including the definitions of “credit hour” and “distance education” and clarify the requirements around “regular and substantive interaction,” among other changes.  A press release announcing the proposed regulations, notes, “Although work on the proposed Distance Learning and Innovation regulation started more than a year ago, the COVID-19 National Emergency underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.”  The proposed rules are open for a 30-day comment period through May 4, with ED intending to publish a final regulation prior to Nov. 1, 2020.

White House Releases Framework for the Development of a Federal HBCU Competitiveness Strategy 

As part of its efforts to support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the Trump Administration has issued the “Framework for the Development of a Federal HBCU Competitiveness Strategy.”  The framework provides guidance to federal agencies on how to develop HBCU competitiveness plans in order to support, “The ability of HBCUs to successfully compete for public and private investments to meet the needs of students and promote community prosperity.”  The framework also seeks to encourage non-federal public and private actors to engage and support HBCU competitiveness efforts.  One example of this engagement is a concept proposed in the framework that would “… encourage larger higher education institutions and corporations, that have demonstrated success in winning Federal grant and contract awards (mentors), to provide institutional development assistance to HBCU Contracting Development Program participants.”  Efforts to increase support for Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and HBCUs from federal agencies are likely to continue to expand.  Several 2020 presidential candidates also included increased support for MSIs and HBCUs in their platforms.   

ED Issues Guidance on COVID-19 Response 

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has issued new guidance aimed at providing relief and flexibility to institutions, students, and borrowers.  Below is a summary of major guidance released thus far. 

Title IV Funding and Student Aid Guidance 

  • On March 5, ED published guidance for institutions of higher education related to interruptions of study, outlining increased flexibility for Title IV aid programs.  This includes offering broad approval to move students into distance learning without regular approval and waiving accreditor review requirements.  There are some limitations on clock-hour required licensure programs.   

  • On March 20, ED issued a “COVID-19 FAQs” document to accompany the March 5 guidance offering Title IV flexibility.   

  • On March 16, Federal Student Aid (FSA) released guidance on how an institution can request a waiver of the community service expenditure requirements under the Federal Work Study Program for the 2020–21 award year.  

Data Privacy and Civil Rights Guidance 

  • On March 12, ED released a FAQ document to assist schools navigating Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and student data privacy requirements as it relates to COVID-19 and possible disclosure of information.   

  • ED’s Student Privacy Policy Office held a webinar on March 30 on FERPA’s implications for distance learning.   

  • On March 17, the ED released a webinar and a fact sheet for protecting students’ civil rights during COVID-19 response.   

  • ED’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has released a video on ensuring web accessibility for students with disabilities for schools using online learning.   

Student Loan and Repayment Guidance 

  • The CARES Act suspends student loan borrowers’ obligation to make payments on their federal Direct Loans through September 2020; suspends interest on the payments; and counts the suspended payments towards payment requirements for forgiveness provisions. 

  • ED has announced that the garnishment of wages, tax refunds, and Social Security benefits of people who are in default on their federal student loans will be paused.  A memo has been sent to federal student loan servicers calling for a pause in collections until further notice and makes the policy retroactive to March 13, 2020.  This retroactive application will likely result in approximately $1.8 billion being refunded to borrowers.   

  • ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid’s website has additional information for students, borrowers, and parents.  

Other ED Guidance 

  • On March 17, ED released additional information for accreditors offering regulatory flexibilities during COVID-19 outbreak, including allowing virtual site visits and extensions on accreditation.  

  • ED will continue to publish new and updated guidance here.  

Open Grant Competitions at ED  

IES: Statistical and Research Methodology in Education Grant Program  

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), through the National Center for Education Research, announced the Statistical and Research Methodology in Education grant competition, which aims to support the development of methodological and statistical tools to enable applied education scientists to conduct education research.   

Applicants such as nonprofit and for-profit organizations and public and agencies and institutions that have the ability and capacity to conduct scientifically valid research are encouraged to apply.  The closing date for applications is July 30, 2020, and the application package becomes available on May 7, 2020.  Additional information is available here

IES: Using Longitudinal Data to Support State Education Policymaking Grant Program 

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), through the National Center for Education Research, announced the Using Longitudinal Data to Support State Education Policymaking grant program, which aims to expand the research use of State Longitudinal Data Systems to examine long-term learner outcomes and pathways in order to provide evidence for state education policymaking.  
Applicants must be a State education agency, defined as a State or Territory’s K-12 authority, alone or in conjunction with research organizations.  The State education agency must be the grantee and must provide the Principal Investigator.  The closing date for applications is July 30th, 2020, and the application package becomes available on May 7th, 2020.  Additional Information is available here


IES in a Time of Pandemic
From the IES Director’s Blog - “We realize that the consequences of the pandemic will include scheduling and financial issues; but at this time, it is hard to assess its full toll on our funded work, including both contracts and grants.  In the short term, IES will be as flexible as possible in allowing extensions of reporting deadlines and no-cost extensions for grants and identifying modifications for contracts that may be needed in the face of massive school closures.”

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