“This Week in Washington” provides weekly updates from the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Office of Government Relations, detailing the latest movements on key community college advocacy issues and AACC’s activity in Washington, D.C.
Last week, the 118th Congress convened for the first time, welcoming new members, starting the shuffling of members into new leadership and committee roles, and cementing the departure of many longstanding, influential members who retired in the previous session.
In the Senate, long-time Appropriations Committee leads Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) have retired, and their roles are expected to be filled by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), who has chaired the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The new chair and ranking member of the HELP Committee will be Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). These leadership positions, as well as committee membership decisions, are expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks. New members are likely to be assigned to the HELP Committee, where members with more seniority are more likely to move off HELP and receive assignments on Appropriations Committee or another more sought-after committee.
In the new Republican-led House, we expect that the majority will continue the tradition of changing the name of the education committee from “Education and Labor” to “Education and the Workforce.” Long-time GOP committee lead, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), overcame a challenge from Rep. Tim Walberg and received a necessary waiver to retake the gavel.
Related article: Foxx again at the helm of House committee
In the minority, former chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), will serve as ranking member after being elected by his caucus in December. Longtime advocates for higher education and workforce funding, Reps. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), are expected to retain their roles as Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee leads. We expect a significant shakeup in membership on both the Education and the Workforce and Appropriations Committees, as many members sitting on those committees retired or lost their seats.
We welcome new members, including Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) and Reps. Juan Ciscomani (R-Arizona), Eli Crane (R-Arizona), Cory Mills (R-Florida), Marcus Molinaro (R-New York) and Chuck Edwards (R-North Carolina), who all attended a community college, earned credits at a community college or earned an associate degree. New member Rep. Robert Garcia (D-California) has taught at Long Beach Community College. Finally, new member Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Florida) is a current student at Valencia College and has shared his intention to continue pursuing his degree while in office.
AACC celebrated the passage of a full fiscal year (FY) 2023 omnibus appropriations bill at the end of 2022. The spending package included several investments for community colleges and our students, including a historic $500 increase to the maximum Pell Grant award and a 30% increase for the Strengthening Community College Training Grants (SCCTG) program, alongside more modest increases for several key programs.
Additionally, community colleges received nearly $183 million in community project funding – formerly known as earmarks – in the FY 23 spending package, to, among other things, help support new and expanded program offerings, improve facilities and equipment, and support students on their path to completion.
Short-term Pell and workforce training
The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility to students in shorter-term workforce programs continues to be a top priority for AACC. The long-stymied JOBS Act failed to advance in the 117th Congress, despite passing in the House, and will likely be reintroduced in the coming months. While longtime champion Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) remains in Congress, previous JOBS-lead cosponsors, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) have all left Congress.
Another proposal, the REAL Reforms Act, was introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and House Republicans towards the end of the last legislative session. The bill would expand Pell Grant eligibility to programs between 150 and 600 clock hours (same as the JOBS Act). In this proposal, eligible programs must demonstrate graduation and job placement rates of at least 70%; and students who receive federal financial aid must see an increase in earnings that equals or exceeds the program’s published tuition and fees. For-profit institutions would be eligible under this proposal. We expect this proposal to be similarly reintroduced in some form in the months to come.
AACC will continue to work with members and committee staff to search for a viable vehicle to expand Pell Grant eligibility to shorter-term programs and deliver this long-needed reform for our colleges and students.
Pell Grant tax treatment
AACC will continue working with policymakers to end the taxation of Pell Grants and to help more low-income community college students take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). Currently, Pell Grant award dollars that exceed tuition and fees are taxed as income, even though these dollars are key resources to help students afford books, transportation and living expenses. By making Pell Grants entirely non-taxable, more low- and moderate-income students attending community colleges will receive their entire Pell Grant amount. Similarly, community college students who receive a Pell Grant are commonly denied access to the $2,500 AOTC because the grant is counted against a student’s eligibility. AACC will continue lobbying the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee to make this commonsense, low-cost change through any potential vehicle.
This week, the U.S. Education Department announced a new slate of regulatory actions that will affect community colleges, including its intention to host a new round of negotiated-rulemaking sessions. ED has indicated that it is set to issue formal NPRMs on key topics discussed during last year’s negotiated rulemaking, including gainful employment, certification procedures and standards of administrative capability, and ability-to-benefit. ED also plans to convene new negotiated-rulemaking committees around accreditation, distance education, state authorization, cash management and “Return of Title IV Funds.” All these issues will have a big impact on community college campuses, and AACC will be deeply involved in this process.
As part of this announcement, ED also confirmed that it intends to hand down a final Title IX rule this May. AACC filed comments in response to ED’s proposed Title IX regulations, praising the increased flexibility that institutions would have under the proposed rule in addressing cases of sex discrimination and harassment and asking for additional clarity on how certain requirements would apply in a community college setting.
Also this week, ED released new proposed regulations amending the terms and conditions for income-driven repayment. Originally announced as part of President Biden’s loan cancellation plans, the regulations would increase the income threshold for $0 monthly payments under the new Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan, would reduce monthly payments for undergraduate borrowers who do not have a $0 payment, reduces the time-to-forgiveness for borrowers with low loan amounts, and includes a provision to eliminate negative amortization, wherein a borrower’s unpaid interest is added to the principal.
Finally, in November, ED released final regulations for the new Prison Education Program, which will extend Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students in approved programs. AACC had filed comments in response to ED’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, raising concerns over the role of “oversight entities” in approving prison education programs and asked for the creation of an approval process to give institutions a second review of their program application. The final rule reflected many of AACC’s comments, including around the role of the oversight entity. The new law will take effect on July 1. AACC is actively monitoring the implementation of this key eligibility.