Washington Watch: Poised to pass more funding for higher ed

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The House Education and Labor Committee was poised to approve legislation at our press time on Tuesday night that would provide $39.6 billion in additional higher spending to combat the pandemic’s impact. 

The bill was brought before the committee as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget “reconciliation” process, which Democrats are using to gain approval of the measure with only 51 Senate votes. (Since House legislation only takes a simple majority, approval in that chamber is entirely a function of Democratic unity.) 

The education committee’s bill will now be “bundled” with legislation reported by other House committees acting under reconciliation procedures and moved to the House floor soon, very likely by the end of next week. Action will then shift to the Senate. 

Funding details

The higher education funding is approximately 75% more than the amount enacted in late December through the FY 2021 Supplemental Appropriations Act, better known as CRRSAA. Along with the primary formula grants, the legislation also includes the same 75% funding boost over CRRSAA for Titles III and V of the Higher Education Act, which includes Strengthening Institutions, Hispanic-serving institutions, predominantly Black institutions and other programs. 

The funding legislation retains the bones of the CRRSAA framework, with important changes. Most importantly, it requires institutions to use 50% of funds for what are termed student aid emergency grants. Colleges must also implement evidence-based practices to monitor and suppress coronavirus in accordance with public health guidelines, and undertake outreach to students to make them aware of options for receiving waivers of student aid eligibility criteria in certain cases of unemployment.  

Tuesday’s committee markup was sharply partisan both in terms of votes and rhetoric, much of it focusing on the issue of K-12 school reopening and the bill’s minimum wage increase. In addition, Republicans charged that Democrats were abusing the expedited reconciliation process, while Democrats asserted that Republicans used reconciliation in the same way when they could. Republicans also argued that the bill was flawed for its exclusion of training funding. 

Seeking clarification

The use of the same program structure as CRRSAA, which was in turn built on the CARES Act, makes it all the more important that the U.S. Education Department implements CRRSAA in a way that community colleges can optimize the use of funds for both their students and campus expenditures. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), along with other higher education organizations, is about to submit comments to ED seeking clarification and accommodation on the most problematic implementation issues that campuses face. (The current guidance was issued under President Trump.) 

The association will follow up directly with Biden administration officials.  AACC also plans to sponsor another webinar on CRRSAA implementation at the end of this month or in early March. 

About the Author

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