Omnibus Spending Bill Prioritizes College Affordability

March 22, 2018

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

In positive news for low-income students, the comprehensive funding deal reached in Congress last night made college affordability a priority. The biggest news is that the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2018-19 academic year will be $6,095. Congress also provided a 10-percent funding increase for Federal Work-Study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and included language for a technical change to allow scholarship providers access to FAFSA information, which NCAN advocated for.

“Every dollar counts for our low-income and first-generation college students,” says Kim Cook, NCAN’s executive director. “NCAN appreciates that Congress has chosen to  invest  in an increase to the maximum Pell Grant and additional funds for Federal Work-Study and the federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, all of which help close historical gaps of inequity. This appropriation is a step forward in the continuing climb to make college more affordable for American families.”

While the bill does address many issues not related to appropriations, Congress unfortunately could not reach an agreement to provide a permanent solution for DREAMers. Individuals in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program can continue to renew their DACA status as the courts decide the program’s fate. DREAMers not currently enrolled in DACA must still wait for Congress to act. NCAN supports the Dream Act of 2017 and will continue to advocate for Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.

This funding bill came after several short-term extensions to fund the government, as well as a two-year deal on the overall budget caps, (the maximum amount of funding to be spent on defense and non-defense). The bill, once passed, will fund the government through Sept. 30, 2018. Specifically of interest to NCAN members:

  • The maximum Pell Grant award is increased by $175 or 3 percent to $6,095 for the upcoming academic year, and the commitment to year-round Pell grants remains.
  • Overall dollars available to institutions for Federal Work-Study ($1.1 billion, an increase of $140 million) and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant ($840 million, an increase of $107 million) rose by 10 percent.
  • TRIO programs received a $60 million increase for a total of $1.01 billion.
  • GEAR UP received a $10 million increase for a total of $350 million.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness is temporarily expanded to individuals who would have otherwise been eligible for the program but were not enrolled in a qualifying repayment program. The eligibility expires when the appropriated funds for this expansion ($350 million) are exhausted.
  • The Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps, received $1.1 billion in funding.

Additionally, NASFAA, NCAN and several of our members – including the ACCESS College Foundation, College Success Foundation, Southern California College Access Network, Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs, EducationQuest Foundation, and College Now Greater Cleveland – all advocated for a technical change to Higher Education Act language that would allow college access programs to access FAFSA data from higher education institutions when a student signs a waiver release form. While this was accepted practice in the past, the U.S. Department of Education advised in the fall that this was no longer permissible. The omnibus included this technical change to allow scholarship providers to access this information when a student signs a waiver; however, college access programs that do not provide scholarships while still using FAFSA data to advise on financial aid packages will no longer be able to access the data. NCAN will continue to advocate for the broader inclusion of college access programs in the HEA reauthorization.

In addition to advocating for this technical change, NCAN and our members including The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) also urged Congress to raise the maximum Pell Grant in this round of government funding. An increase of 3 percent matches the average increase in the cost of attendance at a four-year public university over the last five academic years. However, as Congress continues the longer conversation about reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, there is still much work to be done to address affordability for low-income students who desire higher education, particularly those choosing the four-year path.

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