By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
What a startling difference a year makes. In the span of one Congressional session, our priorities underwent a massive shift, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has monopolized the agenda, with cause, as the coronavirus has rocked our economy, devastated employment, and deeply and negatively impacted students, families and higher education.
We are in the closing days of the 116th Congress and pandemic relief remains at center stage. The week of December 7th could be the last week that both the House and Senate are in session, and there are several high-stakes issues of great importance to our students and schools that AJCU hopes are addressed before adjournment sine die. The most pressing responsibilities for Congress are to finalize appropriations for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) and to reach agreement on a supplemental spending bill that will assist states and communities most affected by Covid-19.
Back in July, the House passed the FY21 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education subcommittee bill. This bill provides level-funding (and some slight increases) for most of the federal higher education programs that AJCU advocates for: Pell Grants; Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG); Federal Work Study; TRIO; Title VI (International Education); Title II/Teacher Quality Partnership grants; Institute for Education Sciences; and Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (all under postsecondary education).
The proposed funding levels from the Senate Appropriations committee closely mirror those of the House, but at slightly lower figures. While these differences must be resolved, it is clear that there is a pathway to finding common ground in these negotiations. Our colleagues at the Committee for Education Funding (CEF) have a helpful chart to see the proposed funding levels from the House and Senate for FY21 (and allows for a comparison to FY20).
Over the past two months, the government has operated and been funded under a continuing resolution (CR) that will expire on December 11. The Labor, HHS, Education, Appropriations bill is one of twelve bills that needs to be resolved and finalized this week. Before the CR expires, Congress seeks to pass these bills together as part of one large omnibus appropriations bill (which may be the vehicle for the Covid supplemental and other legislation to hitch a ride). This task is a heavy lift within a short timeframe, which means that Congress may have to pass another short-term CR before finalizing the FY21 funding bills.
Last week, a bipartisan team of Senators and Representatives came together to jumpstart Covid-19 relief supplemental funding talks with a proposal of $908 billion in funding, of which $82 billion would be reserved for education. Of this amount, it is speculated that $20 billion may be made available for higher education: we will continue to advocate for as much funding as possible for students, colleges and universities.
While there is relief that Congress is taking this issue seriously before wrapping up the year, the levels proposed for higher education do not correspond with the extraordinary needs facing campuses and their communities. In a joint letter sent in November, higher education associations provided Congress with estimates of expenses and losses resulting from the pandemic during the fall semester. This letter gives context for our request of $120 billion and, using survey data, provides insights to the challenges that the pandemic has imposed on students, families, institutions of higher education and the communities surrounding our campuses. AJCU and other higher education organizations are pressing Congress to include as much funding as possible for higher education, and to provide flexibility in how those funds can be used to best serve students and support campus communities. Negotiations over the bipartisan Covid-19 relief package continued this past weekend and could be finalized as soon as the end of this week.
Among other priorities that AJCU is hoping to see resolved in the next two weeks is passage of the Temporary Reciprocity to Ensure Access to Treatment Act, or TREAT Act. As a key partner, AJCU is leading the charge to have the TREAT Act included in any package that moves before the end of the 116th Congress. The TREAT Act is bi-partisan, bi-cameral legislation that provides temporary state-level license reciprocity (not a federal license) for health care professionals in all states during a public health emergency. Our Jesuit institutions need this measure passed to provide vitally important mental health care support and treatment to students who may not be residing on campus because of the pandemic. In addition, we are working hard on issues affecting our student veterans to make sure they have access to housing allowance funds (used to support their living expenses) as the spring calendar shifts due to the pandemic.
What lies ahead? With a new Administration comes new opportunities and new challenges. We are already seeing many Jesuit-educated leaders appointed to senior positions within the Biden/Harris Administration, along with those returning and newly-elected to the 117th U.S. Congress. We are looking forward to working with them and hope that their Jesuit education will guide their work.
AJCU’s priorities for the next Congress will center on ensuring that all students have access to a Jesuit postsecondary education and the federal programs that advance this goal. Why? Because our commitment to the formation of persons dedicated to the common good, where care and attention is placed on academic, social, emotional, and spiritual growth and well-being, is just what the world needs more of now and in the future.