Editor’s note: This weekly update from the government relations office at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) provides the latest on what’s happening in Washington and how AACC is advancing policies to support community colleges and students. Send questions, feedback and more to: opens in a new email@example.com new email.
- Government funded through November, path forward for FY 24 uncertain
- House Committee focused on campus climate
- Department of Education prepares for negotiated rulemaking on student debt relief
- Funding opportunities
On Saturday, Congress came to a surprise deal to keep the government open through November 17. Until Saturday morning, Congress had been at an impasse in passing a short-term funding bill – called a continuing resolution (CR) – and observers felt it all but certain that the government would enter a partial shutdown over the weekend. While the Senate had advanced a bipartisan stopgap funding bill that would keep funding for programs stable at fiscal year 2023 (FY 23) levels (called a “clean CR”), House Republicans wanted to see additional reductions in program funding in the temporary funding extension, along with enhanced border security measures. In a sudden departure from his previous negotiating position, then-Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-California) abandoned these demands from the House Freedom Caucus and other far-right members of his party and fast-tracked a clean CR to the House floor. The bill received bipartisan support and passed the House of Representatives with a 335-91 margin. The bill was passed by the Senate in an 88-9 vote and was signed into law by President Biden with only hours to spare.
The stopgap funding measure is good news for community colleges and students. It ensures that the federal government is fully staffed to administer federal grants, to provide technical assistance, and to move forward with policy initiatives. This is particularly important for financial aid administrators working with the Department of Education (ED) to be ready to implement the new 2024-25 FAFSA and for borrowers reentering repayment in October. That said, while the current situation is much better than a shutdown, the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) will likely still face capacity and resource challenges at least through the duration of the CR. In September, the Biden Administration had requested a budget “anomaly” of an additional $2.3 billion above FY 23 levels for FSA to ensure that the agency could continue operations until an FY 24 appropriations bill is enacted. This would have been used for ongoing administration of Title IV aid, implementing the new FAFSA and Student Aid Index, facilitating return to repayment for millions of borrowers, and implementing the new SAVE income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. However, this was request was not accommodated in the CR.
Looking ahead, the path for enacting fiscal year 2024 (FY 24) appropriations bills has become even more challenging. Following the passage of the CR in the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) filed a motion to vacate (MTV) the Office of the Speaker of the House – a procedural move to oust McCarthy from the role. The motion passed the House by a 216-210 vote, with all Democrats and eight Republicans voting to remove McCarthy – the first time a Speaker of the House has ever been removed from the position. The eight Republicans who voted for the motion cited anger at McCarthy for working with Democrats to pass a bipartisan CR as a primary reason for their choice.
Following this historic vote, House Republicans announced that they will decide on a candidate to replace McCarthy on Tuesday and will schedule an election in the full House on Wednesday. Candidates will likely include House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and current acting speaker Patrick McHenry (R-North Carolina). As with former Speaker McCarthy, the new speaker will face the threat of an MTV being filed by any one member of Congress. The drama of the past week may put the next speaker under even greater pressure to appease the far right and not compromise with Democrats in the House and Senate. With the current CR set to expire in less than two months and twelve individual funding bills to pass, the outlook for appropriations is murkier than ever.
While drama unfolded in the House at the leadership level, Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce raised campus climate issues. Last Thursday, Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee Chair Burgess Owens (R-Utah) oversaw a hearing entitled “How SCOTUS’s Decision on Race-Based Admissions is Shaping University Policies.” The hearing featured experts from the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Asian American Coalition for Education, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Heritage Foundation. After opens in a new windowan opening statement from Chair Owens, the witnesses answered questions on the legacy of race-based affirmative action in college admissions, the role of DEI offices on college campuses, and the impact of family values in addressing educational disparities. While no specific policy changes were floated during the subcommittee hearing, members’ participation shows continued interest in the issue.
In September, Chair Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) opens in a new windowreleased a new reportopens PDF file on First Amendment protections on college campuses. The report reflects House Republicans’ concerns about perceived challenges to free speech at colleges and universities and cited the need for encouraging the invitation of ideologically diverse speakers, promoting and retaining faculty and administrators with diverse views, and creating space for free and respectful dialogues in classrooms and at campus events. The report takes issue with so-called “cancellations” and ostracization of professors, administrators, and students, the use of limited free speech zones, differing security fees for campus speakers, and “overbroad anti-harassment policies.” The report also details House Republicans’ interest in strengthening free speech protections on campuses through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Legislation in that area could come sometime this fall.
Last week, the Department of Education released opens in a new windowan issue paper to inform discussions during the upcoming negotiated rulemaking tables on President Biden’s debt cancellation policy. To recap, the Biden Administration’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student debt was struck down by the Supreme Court, which stated that the President did not have the authority for the action under the HEROES Act. As a next step, the Administration announced that they would be moving forward with the plan under authority granted in the Higher Education Act (HEA). The HEA requires the Department to undergo a long stakeholder engagement process called “negotiated rulemaking” before implementing significant changes to Title IV (student aid) programs. The new issue paper will be discussed on October 10 and 11 at the first of three meetings of the negotiating body, called the Student Loan Relief Committee. ED has also released opens in a new windowa preliminary list of selected negotiators, including J.D. LaRock of North Shore Community College, who will serve as the alternate negotiator for public institutions of higher education, and Ashley Pizzuti and David Ramirez, representing student borrowers who attended community colleges.
The issue paper gives some important insight into potential changes to the debt relief proposal. While the previous Biden plan would have canceled $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants and $10,000 for all other borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year, the new issue paper highlights specific borrower populations of interest to the Department. These include:
- Borrowers whose loan balances are greater than the amount they originally borrowed;
- Borrowers who are eligible for forgiveness under income-driven repayment plans but who have not applied for those programs;
- Borrowers who took out loans to attend programs that provided low financial value relative to the loan amount;
- Borrowers who entered repayment on loans taken out before more generous repayment terms were offered; and
- Borrowers who experience financial hardship.
The questions for consideration indicate that the Department could be considering changes to the previously proposed debt relief policy to provide more targeted relief to certain borrower groups.
Applications are open for key community college funding opportunities:
- Perkins Innovation and Modernization Grants – Due October 12
- opens in a new windowStrengthening Community College Training Grants – Due November 14
For more detailed information on these issues, visit the Community College Advocacy Updates page on our website.