A pair of House Education and Labor subcommittees convened on Wednesday to delve into the Biden administration’s implementation of education-related COVID-19 relief aid.
Appearing before the subcommittees, Department of Education (ED) Under Secretary James Kvaal provided insight into how colleges and universities made use of funding to support students, and highlighted the ways in which emergency aid has served as a lifeline for the higher education sector.
Members specifically sought details on the implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included the first installment of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), as well as the American Rescue Plan, with the conversation touching on issues surrounding higher education’s pandemic prevention and mitigation efforts, technology needs, student financial support, efforts to increase Pell Grants, the upcoming transition to resuming student loan repayments, and ED’s oversight of the use of funding.
Focusing on students, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Higher Education and Workforce Investment subcommittee, questioned how the administration would look to continue to help students meet their basic needs, including housing and food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Kvaal said President Joe Biden’s effort to eventually double the Pell Grant would assist in improving college affordability and serve as a way to bolster students’ access to resources.
Congress is currently debating potential increases to the federal Pell Grant program through the annual appropriations process and Democrats’ reconciliation package.
NASFAA continues to advocate as a part of the ongoing national campaign to double the maximum Pell Grant award to $13,000.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, discussed Democrats’ reconciliation package, the Build Back Better Act, and noted that leadership determined it would be easier to exclude for-profit institutions from the proposed $550 boost to Pell Grants because legislators could not easily differentiate between good actors in the sector from those that did not have positive outcomes for students.
Kvaal committed to working with members to better ensure that for-profit institutions operating in good faith and with positive student outcomes can enable their prospective students to benefit from the potential increase in student aid.
NASFAA has expressed concern over the potential implementation of the limitations placed on the program and in response to the proposed reconciliation text has said that parceling out funds by institutional sector would add complexities to a financial aid system in need of simplification.
In addition to student aid programs, Scott sought additional insight into how ED was working with borrowers to ensure that they are prepared for the impending resumption of student loan repayments when the payment pause ends on Jan. 31, 2022 and that they are enrolled in the best repayment plan for their financial needs.
Kvaal reiterated that the difficulty of the impending resumption of student loan repayments and reassignment of servicers will be “one of the most significant challenges” facing the student aid program, but that ED is hard at work to ensure a smooth transition.
Scott told Kvaal that it would be useful for Congress to receive a briefing on the issue to garner better insight into how borrowers are being prepared for the end of the nearly two-year student loan moratorium.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor committee, took issue with ED’s responsiveness to Republican requests for documents. She specifically cited a legal memo concerning student loan budget projections, and indicated that the department committed in recent email correspondence that an unredacted memo would be forthcoming. Kvaal indicated that the document request would be met.
In terms of oversight, Foxx demanded that Kvaal better ensure that document requests are addressed in a more timely manner and that the department works with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to ensure other document requests are fulfilled.
Throughout the day’s questioning, Republicans also took issue with the scale of the federal aid that Democrats approved in the American Rescue Plan and sought commitments from ED that funding would be utilized appropriately.
Also of concern was ED’s documentation of institutional compliance with emergency pandemic funding. Rep. Gregorio Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) specifically questioned Kvaal about monitoring a school's compliance with HEERF.
According to Kvaal, ED has taken a number of steps to ensure funding is appropriately allocated. Specifically, Kvaal cited the issuance of clear guidance on usage of emergency funds, creating reporting requirements detailing fund usage, creating additional audit requirements, and requiring institutions to certify a number of documents to ensure compliance with awarded aid.
Throughout the day’s wide-ranging conversation, which also focused on primary and secondary education needs, members touted how COVID relief aid has been used in their districts, citing technology investments, scholarships, and contact tracing aiming to ensure that schools remain open and are able to adjust to the pandemic’s impact on institutions and students alike.
Publication Date: 11/18/2021