Government Relations

By Jenny Smulson, Director of Government Relations, AJCU

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The news of the day and the fractured bipartisan spirit of cooperation is certain to have an impact on the Congressional agenda and Congressional action over the next few weeks. At the midpoint of any Congress in a congressional and/or presidential election cycle, the chances of reaching agreement, resolution or bipartisan achievements become slimmer. Even before reaching this halfway mark, the 116th U.S. Congress was at a stalemate over legislative proposals that matter to AJCU, like the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), repeal of problematic tax provisions, and the protection of Dreamers. Looking ahead, all of these issues face increasing hurdles.

The challenges before us don’t mean we slow down: there is always an important role for advocacy, and engagement remains an effective tool in holding Congress and the White House accountable for increasing educational opportunities for all students. AJCU will continue to encourage our elected leaders to protect Dreamers, assist students seeking access to a college education, and ensure that public service careers are a viable option for our nation’s graduates.

Higher Education Act Reauthorization
This coming week, we anticipate a burst of activity on HEA reauthorization in both the House and the Senate. Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, introduced legislation reauthorizing parts of HEA. AJCU expects comprehensive reauthorization legislation from House Education and Labor Committee Chairman, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), in the coming days. Both bodies are advancing partisan proposals, making their path forward more challenging. While still a long way from becoming law, these actions move the HEA reauthorization process forward and keep the issues of college access, affordability and success on the national policy agenda.

Senator Alexander’s bill, the Student Aid Improvement Act, offers a partial reauthorization linked to the must-pass Futures Act, HR 2486 (legislation extending the mandatory funding authority in Title III, Part F, for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Serving Institutions and Hispanic Serving Institutions that expires on September 30). The Student Aid Improvement Act also includes modified text of eight bi-partisan bills that simplify the FAFSA, verification and award letters; permit Pell for incarcerated individuals and short-term skills and job training programs; extend the TRIO programs; and reauthorize the Education of the Deaf Act. The legislation does not update many of the other higher education programs or titles within HEA (Title II, Title VI, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness). Moving a mini-reauthorization bill does not have support from the Ranking Member of the Senate HELP Committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), or many of her Democratic colleagues.

In the House, the majority staff is hard at work drafting a bill that will likely draw heavily from the 115th Congress’ Aim Higher Act (HR 6543) and will have positives and negatives for AJCU institutions and the students whom they serve. The bill is likely to revive the Federal Perkins Loan program; renew and reauthorize the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work Study programs (campus-based aid programs); and strengthen Pell. AJCU is a champion for campus-based aid programs and Pell because they play a foundational role in increasing access to higher education and the timely completion of degrees.

On the flip side, AJCU will closely review proposals that could have a negative impact on student choice and student success. For example, AJCU is concerned about proposals that seek to hold institutions accountable by dictating strict standards on funds spent on instruction. These measures of expenses spent on instruction have not included activities for student engagement, health and wellness or campus ministry, all of which are central to student success. Many policies introduced in the Aim Higher Act are likely to be included in a Democratic reauthorization bill introduced in the 116th Congress.

22nd Annual AJCU Government Relations Conference
AJCU hosted its 22nd annual Government Relations Conference on September 17-18 in Washington, D.C. Sixteen Jesuit colleges and universities were represented by their government relations officers and/or financial aid directors. The conference provided an opportunity for open dialogue among colleagues and a robust discussion of emerging issues on individual campuses. Several AJCU government relations and financial aid leaders presented to attendees about important issues on their campuses including the 2020 Census, TRIO programs, income share agreements and tuition discounting, betting on college sports, and payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT).

On the second day of the conference, AJCU welcomed Representative Danny K. Davis (D-IL), Chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support; Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee; and Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), co-founder of the Friends of Jesuit Colleges and Universities Caucus. In addition, participants engaged with Democratic and Republican professional staff on the House Education and Labor Committee, about the soon-to-be-released HEA reauthorization bill; an expert on immigration policy from the American Council on Education, who provided an overview of the many regulatory and executive order changes to immigration policy related to DACA and foreign influence on college campuses; and Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, who discussed strategies for communicating the value of a Jesuit education.

The conference wrapped up with the Committee for Education Funding (CEF) Gala on Wednesday evening. There, AJCU’s beloved Cyndy Littlefield was honored with the establishment of an award in her name. This award will be presented at future CEF Legislative Conferences to a staff person who embodies Cyndy’s passion for the mission of CEF, as well as her commitment to helping young people achieve their dreams through education.

I have been welcomed so warmly by the AJCU family since coming on-board in June. Effective engagement with policy-makers, strategic coordination with national associations, and responsiveness to the needs and requests of the AJCU Government Relations Network are my main goals for the year and beyond. As my predecessor Cyndy Littlefield would say, it is an honor to represent the nation’s Jesuit colleges and universities.