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Priorities for AACC: Avoid funding cuts, extend tax credit

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​We may be in the crux of the political election season, but the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) already has its legislative priorities set for after Nov. 6.

Topping the association’s watch list is how Congress addresses the federal deficit. If lawmakers don’t agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit by Jan. 1, then an automatic 8.2-percent cut across nearly all federal discretionary programs kicks in (also known as sequestration).   

It’s a package of automatic spending cuts that is part of the 2011 Budget Control Act. The cuts, which would total about $1.2 trillion, are scheduled to begin in 2013 and end in 2021, evenly divided over the nine years.

“How that plays out can depend on a number of things, but an 8-percent cut will be a very big number,” said Jim Hermes, director of government relations at AACC.

Pell Grants would be excluded from the prospective fiscal year 2013 cuts, but other programs important to student success and institution improvement would be reduced, including: adult education, TRIO, GEAR UP, Perkins Career and Technical Education, Workforce Investment Act programs, among others.

“Cuts of this magnitude would severely impair the ability of community colleges to provide Americans with the education and skills they need for the 21st-Century economy,” according to an AACC statement outlining its legislative priorities for the fall. “Congress must consider all avenues in devising a balanced-budget approach to deficit reduction.”

New round of TAACCCT grants awarded in SeptemberHermes added that prospective cuts would also affect the popular Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Community College and Career Training Program, through which the U.S. Department of Labor awards $500 million each year to institutional initiatives to train TAA-certified and other workers for new jobs.

Extend the tax credit

AACC is also encouraging lawmakers to extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which is set to expire at the end of 2012. The credit provides significant support to nearly 10 million college students, many of whom attend community college. AOTC is estimated to provide more than $18 billion in assistance to college students and their families in 2012.

Q&A about AOTC  

“For community college students, the AOTC represents an important means of financing some of their college expenses,” according to an AACC statement. “The AOTC is a significant improvement over the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit, which it replaced, and included many features of bi-partisan legislation that had been introduced in previous Congresses.”

AOTC is preferable to the Hope Scholarship credit because it:

  • Provides up to $2,500, rather than $1,800 (after indexing) as under Hope.
  • Is structured to enhance participation by students attending low-cost institutions, such as community colleges.
  • Includes in the definition of eligible expenses "course materials," which is important for community college students since it enables many of them to receive a significantly higher credit.
  • Makes the credit 40 percent refundable, which allows some of the neediest students to qualify for the credit.

Extending AOTC won’t be easy, as offsets will need to be identified, among many competing priorities, AACC noted. But it is still a priority for the association: “The tremendous support that the AOTC currently provides—some $11.4 billion annually, or about 30 percent of all Pell Grant funding—demonstrates its extensive reach in helping college students.”

Restoring ATB eligibility

AACC is also looking ahead to early 2013, noting that Congress must still finish it appropriations bills for fiscal year 2013. The federal government is currently operating under a continuing resolution, which expires March 31, 2013. Basically, it temporarily keeps funding for federal programs at FY2012 levels.

AACC wants to see Congress restore federal student aid eligibility to “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) students. This summer, Senate appropriators approved a funding plan that would partially do that: allow students who don’t have a high school diploma or GED but show they can benefit from college-level work courses to receive federal assistance, as long as they are enrolled in career pathway programs. (In the House, a corresponding FY2013 appropriations bill did not have the same provision.)

The association noted that the Senate proposal would not completely restore ATB eligibility eliminated in the FY2012 appropriations legislation, but it is “a significant step in the right direction, and one focused on a growing category of community college programs.”

Student aid for online ed

Student aid eligibility for students enrolled in online classes is also on AACC’s radar. Specifically, the association wants to preserve Pell Grant eligibility for community college students who are enrolled solely in online courses. The Senate funding bill would not allow living expenses to be included when determining Pell eligibility for students entirely in online courses.

Preventing Abuse in Federal Student Aid: Community College PracticesAACC noted that the provision was the result of a federal government report on Pell fraud, but it goes too far.

“This provision is far too blunt an instrument that will negatively affect a great number of innocent students,” according to AACC. “It also unfairly discriminates against distance education.”

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