Rep. Shalala Addresses Federal Higher Education Policy in Post-COVID World

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The long-lasting and deep impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on federal higher education policy cannot be understated, said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) Friday during a conversation hosted by Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Furthermore, the first-term lawmaker and former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton said the federal government has yet to do enough to help students and institutions who have been adversely impacted, saying the stimulus package passed in March was just the first step in offsetting the financial impact the virus has had. 

Shalala discussed at length how the federal government has responded to the ongoing pandemic and what more needs to be done to limit further disruptions and hopefully bring students back to campus in the fall.

She made clear that the key for the fall is to keep campus communities safe and healthy for all, including faculty and staff along with their families, if students ultimately return. 

"We continue our core responsibilities [to educate students] but protect the health of people who work, live, and study in our institutions,” Shalala said.

Additionally, she said that fall on college campuses across the country will look different, and that institutions will likely take a hybrid approach with a combination of both online and in-person instruction. She noted that it will look different for each school and largely depend on each institution’s campus environment, such as if a school is in a remote area or in the middle of a city hit hard by the pandemic.

However, Shalala said she doesn’t support “blanket” liability protections for colleges if students come back in the fall unless they meet guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that it can be difficult for the federal government to regulate liability, which is generally under state purview.

As former president of both Hunter College in New York City and the University of Miami, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and current member of Congress who sits on the House Committee on Education and Labor, Shalala is uniquely positioned to give insight into how the federal government can assist institutions as they grapple with the pandemic and the changes it will bring.

Shalala said she fears a “pandemic melt” will lead to a decrease in new enrollment and students returning to school in the fall, a trend that has been documented by declines in both FAFSA submissions and renewals.

As such, Shalala said if Democrats were in control of both chambers of Congress, they would push for increasing the maximum Pell Grant award in order to address equity issues that could be exacerbated by the pandemic, acknowledging that the pandemic has hit minority groups and low-income students particularly hard. She added that they would look to streamline the application process, making it simpler and more straightforward.

“The idea of collecting people’s tax information every year is just onerous to low-income families,” she said.

She lamented the fact that some of the funding allocated under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act went to “fly-by-night institutions,” conceding that “some money is going to filter through to the wrong places when you talk about billions of dollars.”

"If I had it my way, they wouldn’t get public money at all,” Shalala said of the for-profit colleges that received funding allocated in the CARES Act.

The Department of Education (ED) has faced criticism for its guidance related to the CARES Act and how it allocated funding to schools. Shalala said her committee will continue to provide oversight on how ED disbursed the money and hopes to get Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in to testify before the committee.

She decried the partisanship that has seeped into higher education and said she was “mortified” when she heard of ED’s guidance limiting emergency grants to Title IV-eligible students, a policy that ED has since said it will not enforce.

“I’ve never seen higher education as a partisan issue until I met the secretary,” she said, referring to DeVos.

Shalala pointed to the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act that Democrats unveiled earlier this month that would provide even more funding for higher education and retroactively prevent ED from imposing student eligibility restrictions on Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund dollars allocated in the CARES Act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that the chamber is still assessing what implications previous aid will have on the deficit before considering additional coronavirus-related aid and said the HEROES Act won’t pass in its current form.

As for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act passing through Congress this year, Shalala said there is some hope it could get done, but is more optimistic of it happening further down the road, depending on the results of the upcoming elections.

“The problem is the Senate wants to do a narrow bill and we want to do a big bill,” she said. “We’d love to pass [a bill], but I’m not quite sure whether the Senate is going to be willing to do that.”


Publication Date: 6/1/2020

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