Higher ed a step closer to big payoff as $1.9T Build Back Better advances to Senate

The transformational package that includes relief for HBCUs, MSIs and low-income students has one last obstacle to clear.
By: | November 19, 2021
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The arduous first step toward approving the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan was completed Friday when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the $1.9 trillion social spending bill. But the second step in getting Americans and higher education a much-needed infusion of funding likely will be more challenging: passage by a divided Senate.

With billions of dollars at stake for institutions and those they serve, at least one moderate Senator, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may stand in the way of the historic legislation and relief for students, families and institutions. Concerned about the breadth and cost of the package as well as its potential to lead to inflation, Manchin may cast a “no” vote and quash the bill altogether or prompt leaders to have to cut into it further.

The transformational plan already has taken sizable hits, including one that deeply affected higher education and marginalized students: the elimination of free tuition at community colleges.

Among Manchin’s demands is a look at the final cost assessment of the plan from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO released those documents on Thursday, noting that the tally would increase the U.S. deficit by $367 billion. The Biden team said tax charges to the wealthy would balance that out, but the CBO noted that those returns would more likely be in the $207 billion range—a shortfall of more than $150 billion.

So what does all this mean for higher ed? If it is approved as is by the Senate—which would take all 50 Democrat votes including Manchin’s and a tiebreaking ballot cast by Vice President Kamala Harris—students would receive a boost in Pell grant assistance and billions of dollars would pour into Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.

“Today’s passage represents a resounding vote of confidence in America’s future and an unprecedented investment in our democracy,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said. “The impact of this proposal on educational equity, excellence and opportunity— from cradle to college and career — will be nothing short of transformative. … Increased resources for HBCUs, Tribal Colleges, Hispanic Serving Institutions and other institutions that unlock opportunities for students of color and unleash their potential in our communities. Expanded access to affordable college with increased Pell grants for anyone who dreams of getting a degree. A stronger workforce pipeline with workforce development resources, for better pathways to the middle class. All eyes now turn to the Senate.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy has a thorough breakdown of the plan, which categorizes the funding that would be a game-changer for higher education:

  • $9 billion toward HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges
  • $7.6 billion toward Pell Grants, and—notably—a $550 boost to the maximum award for students annually
  • $6 billion in additional funding toward HBCUS, MSIs and TCUs for resources and STEM-based learning opportunities for students.
  • $500 million in grants toward retention and completion
  • $700 million toward career and technical education

“The elimination of the proposal to provide two years of free community college is a major loss,” writes J. Geiman, policy analyst at CLASP. “However, the remaining higher education proposals included in the reconciliation package represent important progress toward improving college affordability and access, particularly for populations with low incomes, Black Americans and immigrant students.”

Although the funds fall short of promises made by President Joe Biden—HBCUs and MSIs were supposed to get billions more, and the amount of the Pell Grant is not double the current $6,495 maximum award—it nonetheless will be a difference-maker, both for K-12s and colleges if passed.

“The combination of proposed investments will drive an equitable recovery by helping millions of students cover college costs and complete a high-quality degree,” said Sameer Gadkaree, President of The Institute for College Access & Success. A $550 increase to the maximum Pell Grant will make it easier for millions of students to cover all the costs associated with getting a degree—including non-tuition–that remain major roadblocks to completion. The package further unlocks the door to opportunity by expanding Pell Grant eligibility to students with DACA and Temporary Protected Status.”

Not all advocacy organizations were thrilled with the outcome and the lack of DoublePell inclusion. The Career Education Colleges and Universities called the it “a blatantly discriminatory omission.

“We would like to thank the 17 Democratic Representatives for supporting student equity in the Build Back Better Act,” said Dr. Jason Altmire, President and CEO of CECU.  “We look forward to continuing the discussion in the Senate to ensure that all students in all sectors are eligible for the increased Pell Grant. We hope that the Senate will reject this short-sighted provision that would punish hundreds of thousands of low-income students and runs counter to the education goals of the Build Back Better agenda.”

Gadkaree said one of the more significant pieces is the funding toward retention and completion. “By setting aside funding specifically for interventions with strong evidence of effectiveness, this new program has the potential to dramatically improve the trajectories of students across the country,” he said. “More remains to be done to address the root causes of rising tuition, high student debt burdens, and persistent racial and economic equity gaps in college access and completion rates.”