The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday quickly passed a bipartisan bill to fund the Department of Education (ED) and student aid programs for fiscal year 2019. The bill, which includes a boost to the maximum Pell Grant award, will now move to the full Senate for a floor vote.
For each fiscal year, federal government spending is split into 12 bills focusing on different programs. Each of those bills must first move through an appropriations subcommittee before moving to the full appropriations committee. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies — or Labor-H for short — approved the bipartisan funding bill earlier this week. The Labor-H funding bill is typically one of the most difficult to pass, as it contains funding appropriations for a number of vital programs aside from education.
"This is one of the most difficult appropriations bills to negotiate," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chairman of the Labor-H subcommittee, in describing the bill he and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) worked together to develop. "It's not a bill either one of us would have produced on our own, but I think it's a bill we're both proud to bring to the committee as the final bill that we've come up with."
Overall, the bill provides a $541 million increase for ED, to $71.4 billion, and would increase the maximum Pell Grant award to $6,195 for the 2019-20 award year. But that maximum award increase would be funded by the Pell Grant reserve fund, costing about $561 million, according to the Committee for Education Funding (CEF), a coalition of education associations that support increasing the federal investment in education.
The bill would also make a $600 million rescission from the Pell Grant reserve fund — much lower than the $1.6 billion proposed cut in the Trump administration's original fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. Together with the funding to increase the maximum Pell Grant, however, the funding bill would result in a $1.2 billion depletion of the reserve fund in fiscal year 2019.
It would also level-fund the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS) programs at $840 million and $1.1 billion, respectively, and continue funding to make borrowers who were enrolled in ineligible repayment plans eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
ED would also be required to give biannual reports on the number of Employment Certification Forms (ECFs) approved and rejected, the number of applications for PSLF approved and rejected, and the most common reasons for rejection of each. The reports would also contain information on the distribution of "qualifying organization types" and other information on types of repayment plans, and total and average outstanding loan balances. The bill would also require the report to detail any outreach efforts implemented and planned to raise awareness about PSLF. NASFAA in 2016 wrote to then Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., asking ED to provide more information on PSLF and the number of borrowers expected to receive loan forgiveness.
The bill would also reaffirm and expand language in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill that provided a legislative "fix," advocated for by NASFAA, to address a FAFSA data-sharing that has plagued students, financial aid administrators, scholarship providers, and other entities for nearly a year. The language would allow an institution to share FAFSA data — with the student's written consent — with an organization "assisting the applicant in applying for and receiving Federal, State, local, or tribal assistance that is designated by the applicant to assist the applicant in applying for and receiving financial assistance for any component of the applicant's cost of attendance." It is unclear at this time how broadly ED will interpret "assistance." Stay tuned to Today's News for further updates on FAFSA data sharing.
On FAFSA simplification, the committee report on the bill said the committee would support further simplification on the FAFSA and related to verification "to reduce the burden on students and institutions of higher education," through methods such as implementing a mobile FAFSA or temporarily reinstating alternative documentation options for non-tax filers, among other things.
The committee report also encouraged ED to use "any authority granted for reimbursing colleges and universities for cancelled [Perkins] loans for which no reimbursement has been provided" and encouraged ED to "pursue efforts to simplify and streamline" the Return of Title IV Funds process.
Murray, ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee and on the Senate education committee, said the bill is the result of "a lot of hard work and tough compromises" and that overall, the bill largely "rejected the president's push for massive cuts to investments that we all know are really important."
The House Appropriations Committee has yet to consider the Labor-HHS-Education funding bill, which passed out of subcommittee earlier this month. Though the Senate appears to be committed to operating under "regular order" in an attempt to complete all spending bills by the start of the federal fiscal year on October 1, in recent years gridlock has delayed final action on spending bills until mid- to late Spring. Last week, NASFAA sent a letter to a congressional committee examining the budget process to outline the effect of student aid funding uncertainty on institutions, particularly in the context of "Early FAFSA."
Publication Date: 6/28/2018