Minority college vote in US ‘could cause further policy paralysis’

Senate passing of bill on funding for minority colleges adds requirement on sharing tax data

December 7, 2019
Source: Getty

The US Senate has moved to end a long political stalemate by unanimously approving a measure that aims to extend funding for minority-serving colleges and to simplify the nation’s student financial aid application process.

The bill, which now requires approval in the House of Representatives, would make permanent $255 million (£194 million) in annual federal support for the historically black and other minority-focused institutions.

It also would aim to help students applying for federal grant aid by giving the IRS, the nation’s tax-collecting agency, the legal authority to share income data directly with the US Department of Education.

Yet the bipartisan Senate vote faces tough odds of being replicated in the House, and may yet prove notable far less as a political breakthrough than as a sign of how truly intractable federal higher education policy remains.

The immediate problem, experts have said, is that the House has already approved a bill containing the money for minority-focused institutions. The lower chamber now needs to approve the expanded Senate version, but its Democratic majority is believed to be wary of making exceptions to rules requiring the IRS to keep taxpayer data confidential.

“Now the complication gets moved back to the House,” said Luis Maldonado, vice-president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The big-picture hurdle is that congressional Democrats and Republicans have long been trying to pass a major renewal of higher education legislation, setting policy in a range of areas, through a delicate bipartisan balance of wins and concessions.

With that background, Mr Maldonado explained, the House of Representatives’ passage of the $255 million in annual funding for minority institutions was meant to be a lone urgent exception, given that funding authorisation on that particular matter expired in October.

But by adding the language allowing the IRS to share taxpayer data, he said, the Senate has introduced the possibility that the money for minority institutions could continue to be derailed by debates on other proposed elements of the overall policy bill.

And within that wider bill, Mr Maldonado told a higher education policy conference organised by his association in New Orleans, there are many divisive challenges, not least the matter of how to handle sexual assault allegations on university campuses.

On that issue, the Trump administration and its Republican allies want language giving those accused in such cases the right to a hearing in which they or their representatives can directly confront their accuser. Democrats are determined not to allow such a thing.

“It is the biggest obstacle” to completing an overall reform bill, Mr Maldonado said.

Even so, it is far from the only hurdle, he and other experts said. Key elements sought by Democrats include boosting spending on the Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for low-income students, while Republican priorities include shrinking the federal role in monitoring institutional quality.

Congress has not rewritten the Higher Education Act since 2008, the longest period without an update since the legislation was first enacted in 1965. The deep disagreements now, combined with election-year political ambitions and the distraction of the presidential impeachment process, have left many in higher education pessimistic about the chances of success any time soon.

Brian Flahaven, the senior director for advocacy at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told the New Orleans conference that important reforms were being “held hostage by so many different interests around higher education”.

Senate Republicans, at least, were cheerful after their chamber’s vote. Their education committee chairman, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said in a post-vote statement that allowing the IRS to share tax data would help students and their families by allowing information on their income to automatically appear in online aid applications.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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