By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
If you visit the Capitol this week, you might find that it seems almost sleepy. If you are e-mailing Congressional staff, you might get more “out of office” responses than usual. This is expected given that Congress is not in session this week, but don’t let this pseudo-lull fool you: behind the scenes, there is lots of activity happening and as soon the district work period ends, Members of Congress and their staff will be back in Washington working furiously to advance their agendas before the end of the 117th U.S. Congress in December 2022.
While December seems far off, it is a short period of time for policy-wonks, especially as we count down toward Election Day knowing that it will heavily influence the dynamics on Capitol Hill. There is much speculation as to what gets completed through regular order, what is left for a lame duck session, or what gets kicked to the next Congress. For advocates, this is no time for rest. We must be ready to boldly articulate our priorities for the year and make our case to Congressional offices and the Administration for programs and policies that support post-secondary students and Jesuit higher education broadly.
Federal student aid is at the heart of the government relations work we do for our schools and the students who attend, or hope to attend, them. Not only do federal financial aid programs make a Jesuit higher education more accessible, but by providing more grant aid to students, data show that it is an investment that leads to greater success as measured by increased graduation rates.
Numerous studies point to the positive relationship between increased grant aid and graduation rates of students with economic need. In 2014, Ray Franke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, analyzed databases from the National Center for Education Statistics and found that “[F]financial aid effects provide further evidence that need-based grant programs are effective in fostering low-income student success, and respective programs at the federal and state level weigh the long-term effects on the state’s economy when reducing funding for crucial need-based aid programs.” This is one of many studies that uphold the same findings: federal grant aid increases student completion and is a valuable investment.
This month, AJCU is asking Congress to increase appropriations for federal student aid programs, and other higher education programs, with the goal of better supporting low-income students in their pursuit of higher education. AJCU seeks to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 and increase funding for the campus-based aid programs: Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants to $1.09 billion and Federal Work Study to $1.520 billion. AJCU believes that student support services programs like TRIO and GEAR UP are key to success in college, and will encourage Congress to provide $1.307 billion for the Federal TRIO program and $435 million for the GEAR UP program. AJCU also support investments in graduate education and will call on Congress to fund Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need at its authorized level of $35 million. Finally, AJCU supports $161.1 million for International Education and the Fulbright-Hays program (Title VI).
We continue to work with champions in Congress to provide permanent status to DREAMERS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. Through the federal rulemaking process, AJCU advocated to maintain and strengthen the DACA program and urged the Administration to work with Congress to extend the full protection of citizenship to DREAMERS. While this remains one of the biggest legislative challenges, it continues to be a priority for AJCU. AJCU also strongly supports President Biden’s recommendation to make DACA recipients eligible for federal student financial aid.
Another important issue that AJCU will advocate for is increased awareness of and support for mental health programs on college campuses. Earlier this year, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced a bipartisan effort to strengthen mental health and substance use disorder programs in the wake of the pandemic. The TREAT Act was introduced in February with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. (AJCU had previously endorsed legislation that would create a uniform waiver for licensure during a declared state of emergency to ensure mental health services could be provided to students regardless of where they were living.) For students who returned home during a time of great uncertainty at the start of the pandemic, mental health support was even more critical. AJCU will continue to promote the TREAT Act and push for its adoption.
In addition, AJCU will look closely at an existing program that supports campus suicide prevention, with an eye toward reviewing and reauthorizing it. The SAMSHA Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention program must have an adequate authorization of appropriations to serve identified student needs, as well as purposeful, focused uses of funds to support prevention and early intervention services.
In a recent letter to Congress, AJCU’s president, Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., captured the urgency of our work on behalf of our students and in seeking a more caring and just world:
“At Jesuit colleges and universities, we seek to provide students not only with a well-rounded education, but also the tools of discernment: the spiritual guidance and support they will need to make carefully informed decisions. On our campuses, we encourage our students to make the plight of those who are marginalized a core feature of their educational experiences — understanding that the future they wish to construct cannot be exclusive to themselves, but inclusive of the entire human family. The Jesuit values that animate our schools offer an invitation to students to engage in the world around them and use their gifts and knowledge to make it better. In this pursuit, AJCU recognizes that federal student aid is a powerful equalizer and a foundational means of expanding access for those who choose a Jesuit higher education, especially students with economic need.”