Congress approves $22.7 billion in relief for higher education

HBCUs have debt erased, while the new stimulus deal expands the Pell grant recipient pool and improves the FAFSA application process.
By: | December 22, 2020
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Congress approved a $900 billion stimulus bill just before the holidays – with public schools set to receive $54.3 billion and higher education netting $22.7 billion in emergency relief aid – as both sectors continue to cope with the challenges and costs from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For higher education, there were several caveats that came out of the approved package, including debt cancellation for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a more streamlined Free Application for Federal Student Aid application and an expansion of Pell grants.

More than $20 billion has been earmarked specifically for non-profit institutions, with an additional $1.7 billion going to “Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and certain other institutions.”

For HBCUs, the decision to wipe away all of the $1.3 billion incurred in institutional debt was a major victory. Through the years, 44 HBCUs had taken out loans to cover costs to build and repair infrastructure such as libraries and dorms. Now, relieved of those burdens, they can alleviate some of the stresses brought on by the pandemic and focus on helping more students become leaders across the nation.

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), one of the proponents in proposing the debt cancellation, said this relief would help HBCUs invest it “back into their students at a critical time when student assistance is needed the most.”

The stimulus also was a win for those seeking Pell grants. According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an additional half million students now will be eligible to receive the grants each year, with more than 1.5 million able to get the maximum benefit, which is just under $6,500. One of those unique groups is incarcerated students.

“For too long, students who are incarcerated, students who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges, and students who have drug-related offenses have been blocked from receiving federal aid,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said.

And one of the biggest obstacles to students receiving assistance was lifted with the paring back of the FAFSA application form, championed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

“After nearly seven years of work Congress and the President will simplify federal student aid for 20 million families who fill out these unnecessarily complicated forms every year,” Alexander said in a statement. “Reducing the FAFSA from 108 questions to 36 will remove the biggest barrier to helping more low-income students pursue higher education.”

Others receiving benefits include: the National Technical Institution for the Deaf ($11 million), Howard University ($20 million), Gallaudet University ($11 million) and the Institute of Education Sciences ($28 million).

Despite the approval of the additional monies colleges and universities, some still feel higher ed got short-changed.

“The money provided in this bill will provide some limited relief,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. “But it is not going to be nearly enough in the long run or even the medium term.”

How it affects public schools

Though the package for K-12 schools will help districts appropriate necessary funds to increase safety measures in schools and provide additional staffing to mitigate academic losses, critics argue it is bittersweet and that more robust help was needed sooner. There is also concern that any state budget cuts might eat into this new education windfall.

“It arrives far too late for the students whose schools have desperately needed these resources for months,” said  Betsy Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “And it still falls drastically short of what these unprecedented times demand.

“While important help is included, what is left out is simply wrong: no funding for the E-Rate program to help the 16 million students without home Internet access or devices despite bipartisan support for that solution; no aid to state and local governments that will likely lead to greater job losses of frontline workers and further stall the economic recovery. Let us be very clear, this bill can be seen as nothing more than a down payment in doing what is truly necessary to fully address the needs of students, educators and their families.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten also expressed concern over the approved package, calling it a “bitter pill”.

“With the life-sustaining benefits provided by the CARES Act set to expire, it’s not a moment too soon. If passed, this emergency aid would invest much-needed resources into our public schools for testing, cleaning, PPE, ventilation upgrades and other safety guardrails, as well as baseline budget appropriations of $16.5 billion for Title I and $14.1 billion for special education, so educators can help address the social and emotional well-being and academic needs of their students. While this deal is both too late and not perfect, it is a necessary lifeline that we support.”

According to the new deal, allowable funds from the $54 million package can be used toward: “school facilities repairs and improvements (including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems), projects to improve indoor air quality in school facilities, and addressing learning loss among students, including low-income students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and children and youth in foster care.”

An additional $4 billion was approved for the Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund, but much of that will be targeted toward assisting private schools and specifically to lower-income student needs.

One of the positives for schools struggling to overcome the digital divide and losses from distance learning is that Congress also approved $7 billion to go toward expanding broadband access nationwide. States can utilize those funds until Dec. 31, 2021.