By Cynthia A. Littlefield, Vice President for Federal Relations, AJCU

2016: What Can We Anticipate Politically?  

Without a doubt, 2016 is already proving to be one unpredictable year in politics. With almost one third of the Senate, the entire House, and the Presidency up for election, the decisions made by voters will ultimately determine higher education policy, even if there is little debate about higher education this year.

Clearly, there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on higher education policy. In broad strokes, the Republican-proposed initiatives tend toward consolidations, e.g. cutting programs or eliminating the United States Department of Education altogether. In the presidential races, there is limited input on higher education from the front-runners, Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The Democratic front-runners, Secretary Hilary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-NH), have both raised concerns about the cost of college, but Sanders differs by suggesting free tuition for public two-year and four-year institutions (which would be quite difficult to achieve financially). Secretary Clinton has offered a more watered-down approach to tuition assistance for those in need. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have spoken about eliminating student debt and expressed concern over college costs.

Beyond the presidential level, the House of Representatives will, in all likelihood, remain controlled by the Republican Party primarily because of redistricting by state legislators. The Senate is up for grabs, as there are 10 Democratic seats and 24 Republican seats up for reelection. Should the Republicans continue controlling the Senate, more efforts to have “one grant-one loan” as a goal for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) will continue to progress and efforts to increase student aid programs will be challenged. If Democrats take back the Senate, there will be more concerted efforts to increase student aid and preserve campus-based aid programs. A recent example of bipartisanship was seen recently in the extension of the Perkins loan program this past December.

Budget for FY17: On February 9th, the President will release his final budget for FY17. Initial reports indicate his desire to reestablish the year-round Pell grants and to reward Pell grant students an extra $300 for taking 15 hours of semester credits. These suggestions, if adopted, could incentivize students to finish their programs earlier and graduate on time. Rewarding colleges for increasing Pell grant students with higher graduation rates is another goal. These suggestions would have to be authorized before any funding was decided, yet they establish priorities for HEA.

HEA Reauthorization: With only 170 legislative calendar days in 2016, passing large pieces of legislation will be difficult. That said, both leaders of Congress have said that focusing on the normal order of business for FY17 appropriations is their biggest goal this year. Staff from both the Senate HELP Committee and House Education and Workforce Committee have been working on HEA legislative language. It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that we could see legislative language at some point this year, but as of this writing, there is no sense of timing. Whatever changes and desires this election year will bring, AJCU will continue to work to protect student aid programs for the neediest of students and protect institutions from burdensome regulations that prove too costly.