Lawmakers would use an estimated $2.8 billion in cost savings over 10 years from streamlining the financial aid application to fund minority-serving institutions. But some elements of the FAFSA Act, which makes it easier for the Internal Revenue Service and the Education Department to share taxpayer data, is giving House leaders pause.
Members of the Ways and Means Committee, whose support would be key to move the amended bill to the floor, say the FAFSA Act could jeopardize families’ sensitive data. The Education Department employs outside contractors who will have access to the tax information supplied by the IRS, which makes lawmakers uneasy. A committee aide said they are looking into different ways to pay for the funding program that both chambers could support but noted that the House already passed a fully paid-for bill to extend the program. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“We’ve been working with leaders in the House to make sure that our bill is something they can accept and pass,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who helped broker the amendment, said Thursday on the floor of the Senate. “We hope that will happen in the next couple of weeks.”
The passage of the funding bill in the Senate is a feat after months of political infighting. Senate Democrats tried several 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, but it was shot down each time by Alexander.
Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, opposed the bill’s plan to pay for a two-year extension of the funding by eliminating a subsidy for guarantee 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.
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the education committee’s ranking Democrat, took issue with Alexander’s piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the federal law governing higher education. Democrats blocked Alexander from advancing the package in favor of a comprehensive update to the Higher Education Act.
Despite speculation among higher education experts that the amended FUTURE (Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education) Act signals the death of a comprehensive reauthorization, congressional aides say negotiations are ongoing. If anything, they say, the deal has cleared the air.
On Thursday morning, the Senate advanced the amended bill by unanimous consent.
“A bipartisan coalition has come together for an important segment of our population that deserves the same economic and educational opportunities as everyone else,” Jones said Thursday on the Senate floor. “These schools are often the foundation upon which families begin to build generational wealth.”
Jones, whose state of Alabama has 14 historically black colleges and universities, said he and Alexander shared the goal of providing permanent funding for the schools, despite the rocky path to reaching an agreement.
Murray said the compromise deal “proves once again that we can work across the aisle and get things done, when we all stay focused squarely on what’s best for students.”
Despite the remaining hurdles, prospects for passing legislation appear much brighter than they did when the funding for minority-serving institutions expired at the end of September.
Groups advocating for the schools were frustrated by the political maneuvering that held the funding hostage. Colleges and universities have relied on the money for more than a decade to fund academic programs, scholarships and facility improvements. Although money from the current appropriation will carry over into next year, schools worried about the uncertainty surrounding future funding and prepared to trim staff and programs.
“We have yet another reason to be thankful this season,” Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, said in a statement. “This permanent funding solution, which would stave off unnecessary cuts for our institutions, will allow HBCUs to continue fostering innovation and inspiring future leaders in the STEM disciplines — and that helps our nation.”