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Congress reaches a bipartisan deal on funding for minority-serving colleges

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) are proposing permanent funding for minority-serving colleges and universities. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

After months of political infighting, a bipartisan agreement could restore millions of dollars in federal funding to minority-serving colleges and universities that expired at the end of September.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, released a proposal Tuesday to make permanent $255 million in annual funding for tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities. The proposal amends legislation the House passed in September by including plans to simplify the federal financial aid application and eliminate paperwork for income-driven student loan repayment plans.

“It’s hard to think of a piece of legislation that would have more of a lasting impact on minority students and their families than this bill,” Alexander said in a statement.

Lamar Alexander blocks vote on funding for minority-serving colleges

With Alexander on board, lawmakers expect the Senate could easily pass the amended bill by unanimous consent. The Republican committee chairman has blocked Senate Democrats from advancing 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. The House approved its version of the bill, sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.), on a voice vote, but momentum stalled in the Senate because of Alexander.

House backs funding for minority-serving colleges, but will the Senate?

The senator from Tennessee opposed the bill’s plan to pay for a two-year extension of the funding by eliminating a subsidy for guaranty agencies that insure some federal student loans. He argued that Congress should work on a long-term solution to funding minority-serving schools as part of a package of higher-education proposals he introduced this year.

Many of the proposals in Alexander’s package enjoy bipartisan support, including reducing the number of questions on the federal financial aid application and giving prison inmates access to federal grant aid. But Murray and other Senate Democrats are opposed to what they see as a piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the federal law governing higher education. Democrats thwarted Alexander from advancing the package in favor of continuing negotiations for a comprehensive update to the Higher Education Act.

Still, a core component of his package that streamlines the financial aid process is featured in the amended funding bill. Alexander and Murray introduced legislation, known as the FAFSA Act, last year to reduce the complexity of applying for federal student aid and remaining in debt repayment plans pegged to income.

Funding for minority-serving colleges caught in the crossfire of Senate dispute

It would make it easier for the Education Department and the Internal Revenue Service to share taxpayer data so students can speed through the aid application, and borrowers would avoid having to verify their earnings every year. The bill, which passed in the Senate last year, also would eliminate up to 22 questions from the aid application. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the FAFSA Act would save the federal government $2.8 billion over 10 years. That savings will be used to pay for the permanent funding for minority-serving institutions.

“While this funding should never have lapsed in the first place, I’m glad that we were able to reach a deal,” Murray said in a statement. “By permanently extending funding for these valuable institutions and streamlining our student aid system, this deal is a win-win.”

Minority-serving colleges have relied on the $255 million for the past decade to support academic programs, scholarships and improve facilities. Although the Education Department said money from the current appropriation would carry over into next year, schools remained concerned about the uncertainty surrounding future funding.