Washington Watch: Training grants deadline approaches, ED issues final ‘free speech’ rule


As most of Washington is on standby waiting to see if congressional leaders and the White House reach a deal on another pandemic recovery bill, there were two developments this week regarding Trump administration actions important to community colleges.

First, there is just under one month to go before proposals are due to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) by October 8 for the Strengthening Community College Training Grants. Hopefully, many community colleges are preparing applications for this very important new program, but with nearly a month to go, it is not too late for colleges that have not already done so to develop proposals. 

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) championed this new program, which represents a prime opportunity for institutions to receive needed support for workforce education. From AACC’s perspective, it is essential that DOL receives as many high-quality applications as possible. This will help underscore both the tremendous demand for and the ability of our community to achieve the purposes of this program, as AACC advocates for increased funding. 

To date, the House has increased proposed funding for the program by 20 percent, to $50 million, in its fiscal year 2021 Labor, HHS and Education appropriations bill. (AACC had requested $75 million.) The Senate has not yet taken up this legislation.

Congress is expected to pass a “continuing resolution” that will keep the government operating under current funding levels until at least mid-December, so lawmakers won’t make final decisions on program funding until then.

Free speech rule

The U.S. Education Department (ED) this week finalized a rule that it proposed earlier this year regarding free speech and religious liberty on college campuses. The rule seeks to ensure that colleges protect students’ free speech rights and allow student religious groups to form their own membership criteria and practices. It will go into effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

The rule makes compliance with the First Amendment a “material condition” of direct and indirect grants that ED makes to public institutions. This includes Higher Education Act Title III and Title V grants, Perkins career and technical education state grants, and several others. Notably, it does not include student aid programs.

A public college would violate this “material condition” when a court issues a final, non-default judgment finding that its policy or action violates the First Amendment. The consequences for non-compliance range from mandated corrective actions up to debarment from one or more grant programs.

The regulation also mandates that colleges must not deny to religious student organizations any “right, benefit or privilege” given to other student organizations because of the “beliefs, practices, policies, speech, membership standards, or leadership standards of the religious student organization.” Rights and privileges include official recognition of the student organization, access to institutional funds, etc.

Under this policy, an institution could not deny recognition to a religious student organization because it does not allow students of other faiths to join the group or become a leader in the group.

This provision would also be a material condition of ED grants to the institution. But in this instance, the department would not rely on the courts to determine compliance. That is because the Supreme Court has ruled that a college does not violate the First Amendment when it denies official recognition to a religious student organization that does not accept all students as members (a so-called “all-comers” policy).

Through this regulation, ED would essentially prohibit an “all-comers” requirement for religious student organizations seeking institutional recognition, thus foreclosing an option that the courts have found permissible. 

About the Author

Jim Hermes
Jim Hermes is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.