The funding, established in 2008, is for schools that primarily educate minority students: tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically black colleges and universities. Many colleges use the money for STEM programs — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and for scholarships and to improve facilities.
The Education Department said money from the current appropriation will carry over into the next year. But the uncertainty around future funding is already having an impact.
Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, has received letters from one-third of the nation’s 107 historically black colleges about how the disruption in funding will harm their schools.
He said Allen University in Columbia, S.C., noted that the loss of federal dollars would hinder staffing and instructional programming, while Spelman College in Atlanta said scholarships and faculty research would suffer. Lane College in Alexander’s home state of Tennessee is bracing for the loss of 5 percent of its annual budget if federal funds don’t continue at their current level.
“It is preposterous to think that … schools that have been disenfranchised and have a history of educating students that have been disenfranchised would not be hampered by a disruption in a major source of funding,” Murray said.
Senate Democrats have tried four times to advance legislation — dubbed the FUTURE Act — that Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced to extend the $255 million in spending, with each attempt thwarted by Alexander.
Jones played Cardin’s role in September when he asked for a floor vote on his legislation, which would pay for the two years of funding, by eliminating a subsidy for companies that insure some federal student loans.
Alexander objected back then as he did Tuesday, with the same argument that Congress should work on a long-term solution as part of his package of higher-education proposals.
Many of the provisions in Alexander’s legislation, known as the Student Aid Improvement Act, enjoy bipartisan support, including trimming questions on the federal financial aid application and increasing federal grant aid to students.
“This is not an Alexander proposal,” Alexander said Tuesday. “This is a package of proposals by 29 senators — 17 Democrats and 12 Republicans. It’s ready to pass the Senate. It’s ready to be worked on with the House of Representatives and signed by the president.”
Alexander’s bill has been lauded by the business community but has faced a chilly reception from Senate Democrats who insist on a comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the primary federal law that governs the sector. Alexander’s refusal to move on the stand-alone funding bill has dismayed some of his Democratic colleagues, who accuse him of using minority-serving schools as a pawn.
“I agree with the chairman. Let’s bring the Higher Education Act reauthorization to the floor. Let’s debate it. But don’t hold these institutions that have historically been discriminated against hostage to a program that we all agree needs to be continued,” Cardin said Tuesday.
Cardin, along with Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen (D), is among three dozen senators who wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday urging them to consider the FUTURE Act. Jones and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are leading the latest push to renew the funding, with plans to hold a news conference Wednesday to call for a vote on the bill. The pair noted in their letter that the House has passed the legislation.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote to the presidents of minority-serving institutions in October, explaining that the recent expiration of mandatory federal funding will have no bearing on the grant funds that already have been made available.
“There are sufficient funds until next September, so there is no funding problem,” Alexander said Tuesday. “This gives me an opportunity to suggest the right way to do this. … The right way is permanent funding of historically black colleges and universities in the package I’ve introduced."
Cardin countered that minority-serving colleges cannot rely on the existing funding, and without continued spending, the schools will face tough decisions on staffing and infrastructure improvement.
“I’m all for a permanent extension,” Cardin said. However, Alexander’s bill includes “matters that are under discussion and debate that have to be worked out between the members of his committee, the floor, reconciliation between the House and the Senate. In the meantime … minority-serving institutions will suffer.”