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Higher Education Policy Newsletter

January 7, 2021 — Lewis-Burke Associates LLC


2021 marks the beginning of a new Congress, a new presidential administration, and a new Secretary of Education, which will significantly impact education policy in the coming years.  2020 ended with Congress passing COVID-19 relief and government funding for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2021.  The bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, included increased funding for Pell Grants, almost $82 billion in COVID-relief funding for education, and a host of higher education policy changes including a streamlining of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  More details on the bill’s support for student aid funding, Department of Education grant programs, and COVID-relief is available below. 

Congress also passed a bill (H.R. 7105) impacting veteran’s education at the end of the last Congress. The bill expands eligibility for in-state tuition to all GI Bill students, creates a liability for overpayments, and restores GI Bill benefits to eligible student veterans whose school closed in the middle of a semester, among other changes.  Members of Congress wrapped up 2020 by also introducing several pieces of legislation related to college athletics, an issue that will come back in 2021. 

The next several months, if not years, will feel different from the last four years.  The incoming Biden Administration has promised to prioritize education spending, address the impacts of COVID-19, increase efforts to promote equity and diversity, and reverse many of the policies enacted under the Trump Administration.  These efforts will be shaped by a narrow Democratic-majority in the House and the Senate.  This flip of the Senate would position Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) as the likely Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).  These political realities will shape the feasibility of policies like “free college,” student loan forgiveness, accountability in higher education, and more. 



Congress Passes Appropriations and COVID-19 Relief Legislative Package

Legislative Bills of Note


Biden Nominates New Secretary of Education

Department of Education Hosts Event on College Campus Censorship

Open Funding Opportunities


Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups


The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America

Congress Passes Appropriations and COVID-19 Relief Legislative Package
As mentioned above, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.  This legislative package included $1.4 trillion fiscal year (FY) 2021 omnibus appropriations and $908 billion in COVID-19 pandemic relief, in addition to other legislative items related to higher education.   

COVID Relief 

The legislative package includes $81.9 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund for COVID relief for educational entities.  This includes $54.3 billion for elementary and secondary school relief, $4.05 billion for a Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF), and $22.7 billion specifically for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.  Of the higher education emergency relief funds, $20.2 billion will be available to all public and private non-profit institutions of higher education, $908 million will be available for-profit colleges to provide grants for students, and $1.7 billion will be available for HBCUs, Tribal colleges, and Minority-Serving Institutions. It is expected that if an institution of higher education applied for emergency relief funding under the CARES Act they will not need to apply again for these funds. Additionally, the bill will provide $113.5 million for institutions with the greatest unmet needs.  Money from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund can be spent on financial aid for students, expenses related to COVID-19, or to carry out student support services.  Institutions are required to “provide at least the same amount of funding in emergency financial aid grants to students as was required” under the CARES Act and financial aid grants can be used for any costs related to their attendance or emergency costs caused by COVID-19.  Importantly, the bill does not extend the federal government’s pause on monthly payments and interest accrual for federal student loans, which is set to expire at the end of January 2021, though it is expected President-elect Biden will extend this pause after his inauguration on January 20.  


The FY 2021 appropriations bill includes several important wins for higher education.  The Department of Education (ED) will receive more than $73.5 billion in discretionary appropriations, which is $7 billion more than proposed in the President’s budget request and nearly $800 million more than in fiscal year (FY) 2020.  The maximum award for Pell Grants will be increased by $150, bringing the award to $6,495 for the 2021-2022 school year.  Federal student aid programs, including the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work Study, will also receive an increase, as would several programs for Minority-Serving Institutions.  Several new grant programs were proposed in the bill, including a $5 million competitive Basic Needs Grant program to support college and graduate students and $2 million for the operation of the National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities.  The bill also creates a new Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development Grant Program that will provide $10 million to institutions of higher education for innovative approaches to increasing the enrollment and completion for rural students.  Also, the omnibus will increase funding for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Department’s education research arm, providing $642 million for the Institute, a $19 million increase above the FY 2020 enacted levels.  The research accounts will see $2 million increases over FY 2020 levels.  

Higher Education Policy Provisions  

In addition to appropriations, the funding package also included higher education policy changes, which typically would have come under a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).  The changes include a streamlining of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a long-standing, top priority of retiring Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN).  Included in the FAFSA changes is the replacement of the expected family contribution (EFC) with a Student Aid Index (SAI). The SAI would be used to determine Title IV aid eligibility except for maximum and minimum Pell Grant awards.  These changes could also facilitate the creation of a look-up table to anticipate future Pell Grant eligibility.  Additionally, the bill removes the ban on federal student aid for applicants with drug-related convictions.  Other changes also include reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for some defrauded students, a fix to help low-income student eligibility for subsidized student loans, and forgiveness of over $1 billion in loans made to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as part of the HBCU Capital Financing Loan program.  The agreement will also fix to allow for data sharing between the IRS and Department of Education for easier FAFSA filing.
Further details are available in Lewis-Burke’s full analysis of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which is available here.  

Legislative Bills of Note 

  • S.461 (116th) (Senator Tim Scott, R-SC)- HBCU PARTNERS Act.  This legislation will require federal agencies to expand HBCU participation in relevant grants and programs and requires sharing their plans to ensure this participation with Congress.  Recently, the legislation was passed through Congress and signed by the President.  Senator Scott’s press release on the signing of the legislation into law can be found here
  • H.R.8835 (116th) (Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-IA)- Rural Revitalization Now Act.  This legislation would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to provide for a relocation and retention student loan repayment program.  The sponsor of the legislation was not re-elected to the 117th Congress so the bill has a chance of being re-introduced by the original co-sponsor, Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY). 
  • H.R.8904 - (116th) (Rep. Mark Pocan, D-WI)- Perkins Access, Retention, and Completion (ARC) Act.  This legislation would amend the Higher Education of 1965 to establish the Federal Perkins ARC loan program and renew the low-cost Perkins program. 

Biden Nominates New Secretary of Education   

Dr. Miguel Cardona, current Commissioner of Education for the state of Connecticut, has been nominated as President-elect Biden’s Secretary of Education.  If confirmed, Cardona would be the first Latino to hold the position.  As a former fourth grade teacher and principal in the Meriden, Connecticut public school system, Cardona’s background is primarily in elementary and secondary education.  Cardona has only been an acting Commissioner for a year but gained notice when he led Connecticut to become the first state to ensure each public-school student had a laptop and access to high-speed internet.   

With Cardona’s past experience, it is believed that he will need many strong advisors on higher education issues, indicated by many people’s concern over his lack of stances in the area.  Some expect Biden to choose a Deputy Secretary of Education who has higher education experience, especially in the fields of student aid and financial loans.  Despite this, Cardona has expressed his support for free community college and all public colleges for families earning less than $125,000, a policy that Biden has prioritized throughout his campaign and as President-elect.  Cardona does have some experience in the field of higher education, acting on the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities Board of Regents as an ex officio member as well as teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut.  A full biography of Cardona can be found on the Biden Transition Team website found here.

Department of Education Hosts Event on College Campus Censorship  
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted an event titled “What is to be Done? Confronting a Culture of Censorship on Campus” focused on the increase of “cancel culture” on college campuses, especially towards conservative-leaning students and professors.  The event started with a discussion on how cancel culture is growing on college campuses and harming academic freedom.   

Panelists spoke of death threats they received after expressing their opinions, as well as calls for them to be suspended or removed from campus.  The panelists emphasized that eventually these threats could lead to physical violence and action must be taken to protect the ability for unpopular opinions to be expressed on college campuses, because the current environment is leading to a suppression of academic freedom and self-censorship on the part of those who do not want to be harassed by the “politically correct.”  In addition to holding this event focused on free speech, ED announced that they were establishing a free speech hotline, where violations of freedom of speech can be reported to ED Office of General Counsel attorneys.  This follows regulations implemented by the department in November 2020 that cut off some federal funding to public colleges if it is determined by a court they violated the First Amendment or their own free speech policies. 

Open Funding Opportunities 

Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI Program
This National Science Foundation (NSF) program focuses on increasing participation, retention, and graduation rates of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.  There are three tracks available to applicants: Track 1: Planning or Pilot Projects (PPP) and Track 2: Implementation and Evaluation Projects (IEP) with a deadline of January 13, 2021 and August 25, 2021 (and annually in August thereafter).; and Track 3: Institutional Transformation Projects (ITP) with a deadline of February 10, 2021 (and annually thereafter).  NSF has $11 million funding available for the HSI program in FY 2021 that will be distributed as follows: 15-25 PPP awards at $200,000 to $300,000 for two-years; up to 10 IEP awards at $500,000 to $800,000 for three- to five-year projects; and 1-2 ITPs up to $3 million over five-years.  Additional information is available here

NSF Announces Revisions to the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) Program

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced revisions to the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) program solicitation for the fiscal year (FY) 2021 competition.  The goal of this program is to "support multi-disciplinary research to sustain economic competitiveness, to promote worker wellbeing, lifelong and pervasive learning, and quality of life, and to illuminate the emerging social and economic context and drivers of innovations that are shaping the future of jobs and work."  The distinct changes from the previous solicitation include: 

  • Categories for Research Medium and Research Large proposals are combined into FW-HTF Research proposals.
  • A new class of FW-HTF Transition-to-Scale proposals is added.
  • An “Access and Inclusion” section is required for all proposal types.
  • A “Readiness and Rationale for Transition to Scale” section is required for FW-HTF Transition-to-Scale proposals.
40 awards dispersed as 15 Planning Grant Awards, 15 Research Grant Awards, and up to 10 Transition-to-Scale Awards are expected with a total anticipated funding amount of $45 million.  Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) and non-profit, non-academic organizations are eligible to apply.  Full proposals should be submitted no later than March 31, 2021 at 5:00 PM (submitter's local time).  The full program announcement can be found here.

FACTS AND FIGURES: Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups


The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America 

“The Merit Myth notes that 60 to 70 percent of the growth in earnings gaps since the 1980s is tied to differences in access to and completion of college programs with labor-market value.  The education gap between Whites, Blacks, and Latinos means that Whites are most likely to benefit from the college earnings premium—44 percent of White workers hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 30 percent of Black workers and 20 percent of Latino workers.  Moreover, only 19 percent of Blacks and Latinos with high SAT scores go to selective institutions, compared to 31 percent of Whites with similar scores.”  Further details are available at .
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