The current Congress, which began with great uncertainty following the surprise election of Donald Trump, is winding down. In January, a new Congress will be seated and it will look quite different from the last one, especially in the House. In addition, presidential politics will no doubt add to the challenges of enacting meaningful legislation.
Probably the two most important developments in federal policy over the last two years impacting community colleges have been in the areas of DACA/Dreamers and spending. In the first case, a feared reversal by President Trump of the Obama Administration’s policy materialized in September 2017, though federal courts have subsequently mitigated its impact. Few would have anticipated substantial funding for a number of high priority programs.
The following is a brief summary of key areas of federal policy impacting community colleges over the last two years.
At the start of the 115th Congress, substantial funding hikes for key community college programs would not have been expected, but that is exactly what happened. The increases were enabled by a Congressional budget deal that created a bigger “pie” for domestic discretionary programs. This “pie” increased by 13% in FY 2018, and a smaller amount the following year. The net result is that appropriators were able to increase the Pell Grant maximum by $275 over two years, to $6,195 for the 2019-20 award year, and also increase the Perkins Act by more than 13% over two years. Institutional aid programs such as Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Title III-A, as well as TRIO and GEAR UP also received boosts, along with apprenticeship funding. The Child Care Access Means Parents in School program received an unusually large increase in FY 2018. That said, another budget deal will be needed for FY 2020 in order to avoid future cuts to these programs.
On September 5, 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it would be rescinding in six months the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Individuals who had DACA status would be able to renew their status, but new applications would not be accepted. Trump’s action was coupled with a challenge to Congress to act on immigration legislation, which neither chamber proved to be up to. In the absence of legislative action, three court rulings required the Administration to continue processing DACA renewal applications, but not those for new potential beneficiaries. This processing continues. Congress took a pause on the DACA issue in the fall of 2018, but action can be expected to pick up again in the new Congress, particularly with the Democrats in control of the House.
3) Higher Education Act (HEA) Reauthorization
Representative Virginia Foxx’s HEA reauthorization legislation, the PROSPER Act, was approved on a party line vote by the Committee on Education and the Workforce in December 2017. AACC did not support this legislation, because of harmful “risk-sharing” language concerning students who do not complete a period of enrollment, the elimination of Title III-A, cuts to student aid programs, and other items. The legislation did have some very positive features, including fairly broad new student aid eligibility for short-term training programs, institutional discretion to reduce loan maximums, and the VFA-driven graduation rate metric (for which AACC advocated). However, the PROSPER Act received little support outside of the for-profit and lending industries, and never made it to the House floor for a vote.
In the Senate, bipartisan efforts to move a reauthorization bill never took off, both for reasons of politics and policy, despite Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander’s strong desire to move a bill. Alexander has one more term as the HELP Committee chair, and he is certain to be dedicated to passing reauthorization legislation.
4) Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act Reauthorization
The Carl D. Perkins Act was reauthorized generally along the lines advocated by AACC. The legislation increases the role of business in funded programs, better aligns Perkins with WIOA, and more fully integrates career pathways programs into the Act. However, AACC remains concerned that the legislation may allow four-year college programs to receive funding, which AACC opposes and is working to preclude.
5) Tax Reform
Tax reform legislation was a net negative for community colleges. This is because the legislation caps the deductibility of state and local taxes, which could ultimately impact public support for community colleges; reduces charitable giving incentives by increasing the standard deduction; and fails to make Pell Grants non-taxable, thus limiting community college student access to the full American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). A very important positive note is that a variety of existing tax preferences for higher education financing were ultimately preserved, even though House-passed legislation had eliminated most of them.
6) Department of Education Regulatory Rollbacks
Consistent with the Trump Administration’s overall initiative to reduce federal regulations, the Department of Education (ED) has limited federal involvement in key areas impacting colleges. The Department has acted to rescind the gainful employment (GE) regulations and proposed to dramatically limit the scope of borrower defense to repayment regulations. Both these regulations are pending, and in the meantime the gainful employment reporting regimen continues.
The Administration has also formally withdrawn Obama Administration subregulatory guidance on Title IX as well as the use of race in the consideration of collegiate admissions. ED has indicated that it will issue new Title IX regulations in the coming weeks.
Finally, the Administration is undertaking a review of regulations concerning accreditation and related issues, including competency based education, online education, credit hour, state licensure, and other issues. The stakes are high, and could be either positive or negative for community colleges. AACC will be deeply engaged in this process.
For more information, please contact David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Policy Analysis, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jim Hermes, Associate Vice President for Government Relations, email@example.com