As this Congress races toward its halfway point, the conversations about reauthorization of the the Higher Education Act – now five years overdue – are heating up. The main area of action centers on funding for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), which expires at the end of September, and several new bills, many of which are bipartisan, being introduced in the House.
There is broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress for extending the mandatory funding that supports MSIs, a category of higher education institution that includes historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions.
Mandatory funding operates separately from the annual appropriations process, allowing institutions that receive these dollars more stability in their financial planning. However, this mandatory funding does have an expiration date.
The programs that provide the funding for MSIs are authorized in Title III of the Higher Education. In May, Sens. Doug Jones (D-AL) and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the FUTURE Act in the Senate while Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) introduced a companion bill in the House. Both bills have garnered a significant number of co-sponsors from both parties.
The FUTURE Act passed the House by a process called unanimous consent, which allows bills to move much quickly through the legislative process.
However, the chair of the Senate Health, Educations, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), objected to the unanimous consent process in the Senate, halting the progress of the FUTURE Act. He said he would prefer to have additional bipartisan items be added to the bill to get them finished while Congress continues to debate other topics. His target areas include: FAFSA simplification, a maximum Pell Grant award increase, Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals, and Pell Grants for short-term programs (though there is more divided support for this item, due to quality concerns).
The Democrats, in contrast, believe that the two-year funding extension for MSIs should be passed without additional items attached. They believe adding the most popular items to the FUTURE Act will make a full reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the next few years far more difficult. In particular, they object to Sen. Alexander’s approach because it does not address federal-state partnerships, accountability for institutions, or affordability (in a broader way). His proposal also does not address the issue of campus sexual assault, a top priority for Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA).
The U.S. Department of Education has announced that unused mandatory funds will be rolled over into the next fiscal year to continue supporting these programs until they are exhausted, likely in the spring. This buys Congress some time to sort out these differences before institutions are actually affected; however, many supporters would prefer to see the extension passed before such measures are necessary.
House Bills on Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency
On the House front, several bills are being introduced during September in what is anticipated as a ramp up for a full reauthorization proposal from House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) in October. Two bills NCAN supports are profiled below.
HOPE (Heightening Opportunities for Pathways to Education) for FAFSA Act
Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA-06)
The HOPE for FAFSA Act (H.R. 4245) would streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process for students by creating pathways for completing the FAFSA based on the complexity of a student’s finances. For example, students and families who have recently received a means-tested federal benefit would automatically have an expected family contribution of zero.
This proposal is very similar to NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA proposal, and NCAN supports this bill as an important step forward in FAFSA simplification.
Financial Aid Communication and Transparency (FACT) Act of 2019
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA-3) and Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA-11)
The bipartisan Financial Aid Communication and Transparency (FACT) Act (H.R. 4343) would direct the U.S. Department of Education to develop standard requirements, and establish common terms and definitions, for all financial aid offers and communications through a process of consumer testing. Institutions could supplement aid offers with additional, yet non-contradictory, information.
With simple and standardized aid offers, students may find it easier to compare their financial aid across multiple prospective institutions, as well as each year they are enrolled at an institution. The National College Access Network (NCAN) supports this bill.