Washington Watch: Community colleges carry a broad legislative agenda

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With the release last week of most of the third and likely final round of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) allocations, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is focusing on a variety of high-priority legislative items that will likely dominate the higher education agenda for the rest of the year. 

Several AACC’s priorities reflect proposals advanced by the Biden administration, while others have been advanced for years. The likely vehicle to enact some of these initiatives is budget “reconciliation” legislation that Congress probably won’t finish until late this year — and, if it passes, it may well be with only Democratic votes.

In the meantime, a lot of legislative jockeying will take place, because no matter how large an ultimate reconciliation package, it is unlikely to contain all the items the Biden administration supports. 

Next steps: The upcoming Memorial Day recess provides an opportunity to directly discuss these issues with legislators. Please direct any questions about these or related issues to AACC’s legislative staff.

Community college priorities

A new document from AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees outlines AACC’s primary legislative objectives: 

  • Tuition-free community college: The administration is committed to this concept; the basic legislative framework is represented in the America’s College Promise Act, with identical bills introduced in the House and Senate.
  • Community college workforce development: AACC seeks a college-led program similar to, if not a direct reauthorization of, the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant program.
  • Community college infrastructure: The American Families Plan includes $12 billion for community college infrastructure. AACC estimates college needs more than $60 billion, but strongly supports the administration’s proposal.
  • Pell Grant eligibility for high-quality, short-term workforce programs: So-called short-term Pell is not included in the administration’s proposals, but it commands bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. AACC continues to advocate for the JOBS Act.
  • Doubling the Pell Grant maximum award: The American Families Plan and the administration’s fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget call for an $1,800 increase to the maximum award. AACC joins the rest of the higher education community in advocating to double the award to nearly $13,000.
  • Broadband access and affordability: President Joe Biden has proposed significant new resources to improve broadband access and affordability, on top of what past recovery legislation has already provided.

Taxing Pell grants

AACC also continues to work to make Pell grants non-taxable. Currently, portions of the awards not used for tuition and required course materials are taxable. This is poor public policy because it effectively reduces aid to those who have already demonstrated great financial need. It also affects community college students the hardest of any sector, by far. This tax treatment and related provisions reduce community college student eligibility for the $2,500 annual American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). 

AACC hopes to see legislation introduced soon to eliminate Pell Grant taxation and provide greater assistance to community college students through the tax code.

FY22 appropriations

AACC also continues to advocate for support for students and member institutions through the FY22 appropriations process. AACC has a number of top priorities, in addition to doubling the Pell Grant maximum. These include the Strengthening Community College Training Grants Program, the Perkins Act, institutional aid, TRIO and GEAR UP, and other programs.

House appropriators are expected to write their legislation early this summer. The FY 2022 funding process will not be governed by overall budget “caps” this year, leaving funding levels to negotiations in Congress and with the White House.

About the Author

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