Washington Watch: More info on stimulus legislation

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Washington Watch is produced by the AACC office of government relations and policy analysis.

President Donald Trump’s signature of the Coronavirus and Relief Supplemental Act paved the way for funds to be provided to students and institutions. 

Despite the impending presidential transition, U.S. Education Department (ED) personnel are working energetically to deliver funding to campuses. In many respects, the new law tracks the basic programmatic structure of the Coronavirus Response and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act (CARES), so implementation should be considerably more straightforward than under that legislation.

Furthermore, institutions are not required to submit applications to receive the funds if they were a CARES Act recipient.

Executive branch role

Despite the fact that CARES Act administrative snafus were top of mind as Congress drafted subsequent higher education stimulus legislation, there is still some room for executive branch flexibility in the law’s administration.  It is quite possible that some policies set by the Trump administration in its waning days might change when the Biden presidency gets underway. 

In its issuance of guidance under the CARES Act, ED emphasized that regulatory guidance is just that — it is non-binding and lacks the force of law as in a formal regulation. ED published an “interim final rule” on student eligibility for CARES Act emergency grant funds that proved extremely controversial.  

New law in context

The new stimulus legislation provides $22.7 billion to higher education, less than the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) requested but nevertheless significant support for community colleges and students, and substantially more than was contained in the CARES Act. To a significant extent, AACC’s recommendations for how new stimulus funds may be used were adopted, which should result in campuses finding it substantially easier to use funds to meet needs created by the pandemic. 

The law also contains an important “maintenance of effort” provision that is intended to ensure that the new stimulus funds supplement and do not supplant state support. 

Finally, as reported earlier, the legislation employed “headcount’ rather FTE for 50% of the formula funds, resulting in a higher percentage of funds being channeled to community colleges and their students.  It should be remembered, however, that the overall amount of funding matters tremendously in terms of the support individual campuses receive. In that regard, AACC expects to be advocating for further stimulus support as the new Congress gets underway.  This support could be essential as enrollments remain below pre-pandemic projections and state and other funding cuts are enacted.

January 12 webinar

To explain some of the features of the new law, including the FASFA Simplification Act provisions passed with it, AACC will host a webinar on January 12 at 3:00 pm ET. Register today.

About the Author

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