Congress Careens Through Lame Duck Session With Flurry of Activity

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Congressional leaders are making a mad dash to wrap up business for the current session, negotiating at a breakneck pace to avert a year-end government shutdown and tidy up some last minute policy debates. 

Here's what remains on the congressional agenda for higher education in the waning days of the 116th Congress:

Additional Pandemic-Related Relief 

Negotiations over additional pandemic related relief have been oscillating since the summer, while there have been a number of breakthroughs a number of high profile sticking points have remained which have held up any prospect of implementing additional relief.

Democrats in October passed a revised version of their Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which set aside $208 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, 13% of which (or $27 billion) must go to public institutions of higher education and will be distributed by governors. Another $11.9 billion will go directly to institutions, including $3.5 billion for minority-serving institutions, $7 billion for private nonprofit institutions, and $1.4 billion for public and nonprofit institutions with unmet need, including those that operate entirely online.

Republicans have taken a more targeted approach, but in July, following House Democrats' original debut of the HEROES Act in May, unveiled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act — which would provide an Education Stabilization Fund with $105 billion for programs housed under the Department of Education (ED). Just over $29 billion would be directed to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to provide grants directly to institutions of higher education, based largely on the enrollment of full-time equivalent Pell Grant recipients.

Most recently, negotiations have narrowed, with Democrats agreeing to lower their topline spending number from a $2 trillion sized package to a bipartisan proposal that comes in at roughly $1 trillion in total spending. Yet sticking points over liability protections and funding levels for state and local aid remain.

While the Department of Education (ED) recently extended the federal student loan administrative forbearance period — with a pause in interest accrual, and the suspension of collections activity — through January 31, 2020, aid for the higher education community is still desperately needed as the pandemic continues to rage.

The higher education community, including NASFAA, sent a letter to Congressional leadership requesting that any supplemental funding bill include at least $120 billion for higher education in order to partially mitigate the challenges that students and institutions are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

FAFSA Simplification

With just a few weeks left in Congress,  Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is making final effort to pass FAFSA simplification legislation before his retirement at the end of this Congress — especially since a rewrite of the Higher Education Act this Congress proved elusive.

A long-time champion of FAFSA simplification, Alexander's latest effort comes as no surprise. In October, he explained on NASFAA's "Off The Cuff" podcast his intention to try to get a simplification bill passed during the lame duck session of Congress before retiring in January. 

FAFSA simplification is an issue that NASFAA has long advocated for. Back in 2015, NASFAA released a working group report on how to make the FAFSA and the overall application process more efficient and simple for students and families. Most recently, over the summer of 2020 NASFAA commissioned a paper series on ways to enhance FAFSA efficiency, which served as an updated the 2015 FAFSA simplification proposal and enlisted other subject-matter experts to both assess the current validity of previous work done on FAFSA efficiency and explore new simplification concepts.

NASFAA has worked closely with members in both chambers during this congressional session to make gains on FAFSA simplification, providing technical expertise on a number of bills aimed at improving the student aid application process. In September 2019, NASFAA supported Rep. Lucy McBath's (D-Ga.) HOPE  (Heightening Opportunities for Pathways to Education) for FAFSA Act, a bill that would assign different questions to students based on their family's income level. The provisions of the HOPE for FAFSA Act, which are similar to the recommendations made by the 2015 working group, were ultimately included in the College Affordability Act introduced by House Democrats last October. In the Senate, NASFAA endorsed the FAFSA Simplification Act introduced by Alexander in October 2019. The bill would make significant changes to the need analysis formula, allow students to preview their eligibility for the Pell Grant award using their adjusted gross income and household size, and eliminate additional, unnecessary questions from the FAFSA. Any compromise legislation would likely incorporate facets of both the Senate and House bills.

With hopes of advancing FAFSA simplification legislation during lame duck session hanging in the balance, NASFAA last week sent a letter to congressional leadership requesting that any year-end spending measure include bipartisan policies that will simplify and improve the FAFSA process for millions of postsecondary students.To learn more about NASFAA's role in FAFSA simplification, listen to our most recent episode of "Off The Cuff."

Averting a Government Shutdown

By utilizing another continuing resolution, Congress is slated to extend government funding through December 18 and by then will need to come up with either another short-term spending bill or a massive package to fund the government throughout fiscal year 2021, before beginning the next budget cycle. This bill, which could be the final act of this Congress, could get a number of other policy proposals attached to it — including coronavirus relief and a FAFSA simplification bill. 

Last-Minute Activity 

In addition to these issues Congress could also quickly advance a number of minor bipartisan bills like a recent effort to combat student debt relief scams. These items could move on their own, or get wrapped into a spending measure.

Stay tuned to Today's News for updates and developments on the lame duck session. 



Publication Date: 12/11/2020

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