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  • Washington Highlights

    Senate Introduces Higher Education Legislation

    Brett Roude, Legislative Analyst
    Matthew Shick, Sr. Director, Gov't Relations & Regulatory Affairs

    Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) Sept. 26 introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019 (S. 2557), which includes updates to the Higher Education Act (HEA).

    The bill is centered around providing $255 million in permanent mandatory funding each year to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), simplifying the Federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to 22 questions, and increasing the maximum Pell Grant award. Mandatory funding for HBCUs and MSIs expired on Sept. 30.

    The legislation also provides language to simplify financial aid letters. The bill encourages financial aid officers to provide students with their annual cost of attendance (including room and board), highlight any federal and private student loan options, and clearly state merit and/or need-based awards a student may receive in their financial aid letters.

    According to the committee’s press release, Chairman Alexander proposes to eliminate the standard repayment cap on income-based repayment plans (IBR) to pay for the bill. Under this proposal, borrowers who enroll in IBR plans after July 1, 2020, will have to pay 10% of their discretionary income, regardless of their salary. Under current law, IBR payments are capped at 10-year standard repayment levels.

    Alexander noted, “I am today introducing a long-term solution to permanently provide funding for Minority Serving Institutions…this solution would be part of a package of bills that will make it easier for millions of students to get a college education by simplifying the FAFSA, providing Pell grants to parole eligible prisoners, allowing Pell grants to be used for short-term programs, and increasing the maximum Pell grant award.”

    In response to the bill’s introduction, HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called “for a comprehensive reauthorization of the HEA that addresses four core priorities: affordability, accessibility, accountability, and campus safety.” She also urged the Senate to pass the bipartisan Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act (FUTURE Act, S. 1279), which would provide funding for HBCUs and MSIs for two years. 

    According to Sen. Murray’s press release, House Democrats are planning to introduce comprehensive HEA legislation. In preparation for House introduction, leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus released their priorities for HEA reauthorization, which include protecting cost of attendance borrowing through GradPLUS loans and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

    Earlier this year, the White House released its HEA priorities that include capping GradPLUS loans and eliminating PSLF [see Washington Highlights, March 22].