Building Back Something? What Democrats’ Updated Legislative Agenda Means for Higher Ed Priorities

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Congress is back in session this week, and the path forward for Build Back Better is incredibly muddled, with the legislative options for the sprawling package seemingly at a dead end. Yet with the congressional dynamic of razor-thin majorities still intact, there’s still a chance for Democrats to enact some of their most pressing goals. What remains to be seen is whether higher education remains a part of the agenda.

Democrats’ second reconciliation package could get a significant rewrite with leadership assessing the prospect of breaking the bill into smaller “chunks.” While the process could get movement, it also risks a number of proposals — seemingly unrelated measures tacked onto a piece of legislation that is moving through Congress — getting chopped out.

On the higher education front, the reconciliation proposal has, throughout the tedious process, touted the following policy proposals:

  • Increased funding to the maximum Pell Grant for students enrolled at public and non-profit institutions;
  • Excluding Pell Grants from gross income in the Internal Revenue Code, making them no longer taxable;
  • Grants for tuition-free community college, tuition assistance for certain institutions;
  • Making individuals enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible for Title IV aid;
  • Funding for a new grant program to strengthen student retention and college completion efforts; and
  • Increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). 

Here’s where those higher education proposals stood prior to the demise of negotiations surrounding the previously drafted package.

While some of the provisions — like the grants for tuition-free community college — were scrapped months ago, they could come back, as President Joe Biden has been pressing for the inclusion of free community college in a potential upcoming revision of the bill, but it is unclear how negotiations will pan out. 

Alternatively, there is the prospect that all the higher education policies get abandoned, given the slim Democratic majorities in Congress, and instead more modest funding increases could be carried out through the appropriations process.

As Congress enters into the midterm election cycle and Democrats’ unified control of Washington potentially comes to an end, the legislative landscape is beginning to pile up. A Supreme Court nomination, potential needs to address the continued impact of the pandemic, elections reform, and the annual appropriations cycle could dominate the calendar in the coming months.


Publication Date: 2/1/2022

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