Washington Watch: Senate GOP puts ed proposals on table

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Senate Republicans have offered stimulus “4.0” legislation that would provide significant funding for higher education. The long-anticipated proposals — called the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act — would provide an Education Stabilization Fund with $105 billion for programs at the Education Department (ED), with just over $29 billion directed to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

 The legislation immediately becomes subject to high stakes negotiations between both parties in Congress and the White House. However, huge differences in approach will make for very difficult discussions. Congress is scheduled to leave Washington on August 7, but it appears highly unlikely that the sprawling legislation can be enacted before that time.

CARES Act funding mechanisms

The legislation uses the existing CARES Act structure to deliver funds to higher education institutions. Ninety percent of the funding would go to non-profit institutions, in an amount close to $25 billion, almost twice what was provided through the CARES Act. 

The measure adopts a modified CARES Act allocation formula that is somewhat more tilted towards Pell Grant recipients and therefore benefits community colleges and students relative to the CARES Act, though it does not use the headcount allocation method for which the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) advocated and continues to do so. 

The Senate legislation does not require directing any particular percentage of funding to emergency student grants. It would allow institutions to use the funds to defray costs incurred due to the coronavirus, such as lost revenue, technology costs to transition to distance education and payroll, and to provide emergency financial aid grants to students, including those exclusively enrolled in distance education. 

For-profit colleges are not eligible for these funds, though they would qualify for a separate, much smaller set of FIPSE funds ($1.46 billion). 

The legislation also provides funding for Titles III and V of the Higher Education Act, as in the CARES Act and the House-passed HEROES Act. Title III-A, Hispanic-serving institutions and other institutional funds would generally be distributed on the basis of a formula similar to the one ED used to allocate CARES Act funding. 

AACC supports requiring short application forms designed to reflect institutional need rather than formula distribution. But the commitment to these key programs is appreciated.

Other provisions

Governors would receive $5 billion in emergency relief for education that they could allocate to K-12 or higher education. A smaller allocation ($2.95 billion) under the CARES Act has translated into support for community colleges in some states.

The Senate legislation does not include a dedicated community college training program. However, $1.3 billion in funding for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is allocated, with some of this funding going to training, with an emphasis on facilitating online education and instructional support in light of the pandemic. Senate Democrats’ legislation (S. 4112) does include a $2 billion community college training program. 

Liability protection

The Senate legislation also would provide liability protection for institutions as they provide on-campus instruction and services, along the lines of what AACC has advocated. This is a top priority of Majority Leader McConnell, and AACC will advocate for inclusion of this or similar language in final legislation.

AACC continues to advocate for community college interests as the “stimulus 4.0” process continues. Stay tuned for updates.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.