Federal Relations

By Scott Fleming, Interim Vice President for Federal Relations, AJCU

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After many years of working on federal relations with my dear friend, Cyndy Littlefield (through my role as assistant vice president for federal relations at Georgetown University), AJCU’s president, Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, S.J., asked if I would step in on an interim basis to take on her work after her untimely death on February 5. Hers are huge shoes to fill. She was widely respected and loved both here in Washington and by her many colleagues at our 28 AJCU institutions across the country. I will do all that I can to measure up, but I could never be another Cyndy Littlefield.

But I know that Cyndy is wanting for all of us to keep up her work. With the longest government shutdown in history now behind us and government funding settled for FY19, Congress is back in session after the President’s Day state / district work period. During the weeks and months ahead, there is a lot at stake for Jesuit institutions and higher education in general. There is considerable movement on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which was last reauthorized in 2007. Beyond that, the federal budget situation this year has added complexity.

In the Senate, there are serious ongoing discussions on HEA reauthorization legislation among bipartisan leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Their goal is to develop a piece of legislation that could serve as the basis from which the Committee’s members and then the full Senate could work. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), has made clear his desire to see a new HEA enacted this year. The Ranking Member of the Committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who represents both Gonzaga University and Seattle University, and her staff are actively engaged in those deliberations.

In the House of Representatives, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) (who holds a J.D. from Boston College) and Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC) have outlined five topics for hearings they are planning in the months ahead:

  • The Cost of College: Student Centered Reforms to Bring Higher Education Within Reach

  • Strengthening Accountability in Higher Education to Better Serve Students and Taxpayers

  • The Cost of Non-Completion: Improving Student Outcomes in Higher Education

  • Engines of Economic Mobility: The Critical Role of Community Colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions in Preparing Students for Success

  • Innovation to Improve Equity: Exploring High-Quality Pathways to a College Degree

Dates have not yet been set for these hearings. Last year, however, during debate on the House Republicans’ PROSPER Act (a bill to rewrite and reauthorize the HEA), Democrats introduced their own comprehensive reauthorization proposal known as the AIM HIGH Act. Many of the ideas in that bill are likely to be central to reauthorization efforts in the House.

In both the House and the Senate, the reauthorization debate covers the waterfront when it comes to federal higher education policy. The Title IV federal financial aid programs – Pell Grants, campus-based aid including Perkins Loans, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG), Federal Work Study (FWS) and Stafford Loans – tend to be front and center in reauthorizations. Proposals have been put forward to “simplify” student aid by eliminating the Perkins Loan and SEOG programs. AJCU institutions utilize these campus-based aid programs to assist our students, along with generous institutional dollars that are used to match federal contributions.

While the Perkins Loan program authorization lapsed last year, there will continue to be a major effort to reauthorize the program. We will also be fighting to preserve SEOG. What advocates call “simplification” would only mean less aid for students with significant financial need. In recent budgets, the Administration has proposed ending the in-school interest subsidy that has historically been provided under the Stafford Loan program. This is no time to take an action like that, which would add to the overall cost of attendance for our students.

With regard to loan programs, proposals to reduce and simplify loan repayment options will require significant debate. Likewise, the Administration has sought to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows forgiveness of loan payments after ten years of on-time monthly repayments for individuals who go into low or moderately paid positions in public service – including teachers, fire and police personnel, as well as staff in local, state and federal governments – or work with qualified non-profit organizations (including AJCU institutions). As a means of improving repayment, Chairman Alexander recently proposed wage withholding for federal loan payments.

Beyond the Title IV federal financial aid programs, these reauthorization bills, no doubt, will touch on many other aspects of higher education policy. Proposals have been raised that could alter long-standing approaches to accreditation; modify Title VI international higher education programs and programs serving minority serving institutions; impose new institutional risk sharing requirements; address campus sexual assault; and impact campus speech and expression policies, and student privacy issues.

As this moves forward, Congress will soon need to address the debt ceiling, spending caps that are well below those that were in place to formulate FY19 appropriations levels, and a litany of other issues. This week, the Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget indicated that the Administration’s FY20 budget proposal will call for a 5% cut in domestic discretionary spending while using billions in so-called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to provide for a dramatic increase in defense spending over current levels. The Administration’s budget details will be released during the first weeks in March, but loud push-back to this plan is already being heard from Democrats on Capitol Hill.

You can be sure that we will continue to advocate for policies that protect and enhance Jesuit higher education and support all of our students.