In testimony to the Senate Appropriations Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) subcommittee, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona covered a wide range of proposed higher education investments within President Joe Biden’s annual budget request, arguing for urgency in increased federal contributions.
“We recognize that if we don’t act with urgency, we’re going to lose many of our students that are thinking of higher education as an opportunity to continue their growth,” Cardona said.
Appropriators in their questioning of Cardona sought insight on topics ranging from Pell Grants, community college investments, student loan repayments, ramifications from the pandemic, and FAFSA simplification as they begin to work through the annual budgeting process.
Subcommittee chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) largely praised the administration’s pledged investments in the education budget and touted her own plan that centers on expanding the Pell Grant program and would gradually double the maximum federal Pell Grant award over a five-year period and extend eligibility to those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, commonly known as “Dreamers.”
Ranking member Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who like many Republicans expressed concern over the funding levels, indicated he was receptive to the department’s effort to increase Pell Grant funding.
“I am much more inclined to be receptive to your arguments about increasing the Pell Grant, increasing even the level of maybe whether you qualify for that maximum Pell sooner,” Blunt said. However, he raised concerns over efforts to provide “free” community college to all students, regardless of need, citing concerns again over the potential cost.
When it comes to implementing community college investments, the Biden administration could approach those policies through the annual budget process or utilize discussions surrounding infrastructure, which could only require a simple majority of approval to implement.
However, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a key vote in advancing any infrastructure package, indicated that he had issues with so-called free community college plans and urged for better incentives and accountability metrics to ensure student program completion.
“If they had free college they’d still be in college, they'd never have left, they loved it so much,” Manchin said of his now adult children, cautioning that making higher education programs free could yield unintended consequences.
Members also sought to get a sense of how the department would be approaching the end of the federal student loan moratorium, with Blunt expressing disappointment that Cardona did not have any mention of the policy in his drafted opening remarks. The issue was later brought up by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who asked if ED considers the current extension, through September 30, to be the final end date of the benefit.
“We are aiming to provide as much of an onramp for these borrowers as possible, and restarting payments in October is something that we ... are continuing conversations about if that’s the best time,” Cardona said.
Cardona went on to say that the pause in loan repayments has been critically important to borrowers in the wake of the pandemic.
Murray also inquired how ED was approaching FAFSA simplification, following ED’s recent announcement that it will employ a delayed, phased implementation of the changes made to federal methodology and the FAFSA as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.
“We need to get moving on this,” Cardona said. “We need to move quickly, swiftly to ensure we are prioritizing that. FAFSA simplification is incredibly important. We are on it, we’re going to prioritize this.”
Senate leaders have not yet indicated when committees will begin their markups and unveil legislative texts to accompany the president's budget request, but House leaders have slated a pair of July markups to work to begin moving their spending bills.
Congressional leaders have until September 30 to complete work on the fiscal year 2022 budget. Otherwise, they’ll need to rely on funding extensions to keep ED operating at full capacity.
Publication Date: 6/17/2021