The impacts of the $1.7 trillion spending plan on higher education

Pell Grant money for students, billions for HBCUs are tied to the key vote from House representatives.
By: | November 5, 2021
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After weeks of negotiations and adjustments, which included the elimination of free community college tuition, Democrats in the House of Representatives were poised to approve the $1.75 trillion social spending bill Friday that includes transformative help for higher education. That is until the process hit another snag when moderates said they wanted to get a “score” from the Congressional Budget Office on the plan. Now, there may not be an answer until Nov. 15 as the House breaks for recess next week.

While not nearly what many advocacy groups, institutions and students were hoping for, the legislation does offer billions of dollars in relief for historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and minority-serving institutions and will provide better outcomes for those they serve.

“HBCUs are in a much better position, and I hope our community never loses sight of the fact that we are using the terms ‘HBCU’ and ‘billions’ in the same sentence,” said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs for UNCF. “That simply just was not happening even four years ago. The improvements we see are the results of bare-knuckled advocacy that is beginning to bear results for the students and the institutions that are most in need. To see many of those issues addressed is relieving.”

The more than 2,000-page bill includes $2 billion for HBCUs for a variety of needs, including financial assistance for low-income students and improvements to infrastructure and labs. But the latter will need oversight to see that comes to fruition.

“We must still ensure Congress fully embraces the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act and tackles the full backlog of deferred maintenance on our campuses,” Murray said. “The time for deferring—whether it be dreams or maintenance—has passed. Our institutions deserve this support so they can even improve their contributions to their communities and their state economies by educating the diverse workforce of the future that America needs to stay competitive globally.”

An additional $1 billion has been included for HBCUs for research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All told, $6 billion of the roughly $40 billion earmarked for higher education—far less than what was originally proposed in the Build Back Better Plan—would go to Title III and Title V institutions. Tribal Colleges would receive roughly $700 million, while minority-serving institutions are expected to see nearly $600.

Also included in the legislation:

  • Increased access for DREAMers, those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, Temporary Protected and Deferred Enforced Departure enrolled at nonprofit institutions
  • $20 billion toward career training and workforce development
  • $500 million in grants that will help students stay in college and earn their degrees.

But the one big snub is the nominal increase of $550 to the maximum Pell Grant award for students, a number that falls short of President Joe Biden’s early promise of $1,400. More than 1,200 institutions and advocacy organizations have called for doubling the award to $13,000. Both Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, and Biden in a Town Hall meeting on CNN, said they also were committing to get to that figure in the future. But resistance from politicians wanting to streamline the current package cut into that potential aid now.

“While any increase to the maximum Pell Grant is always appreciated, and the extra $550 will certainly help low-income students better afford a postsecondary education, we’re still hopeful we’ll see President Biden’s campaign trail promise to double the annual maximum award from $6,495 to $13,000 come to fruition,” said Jill Desjean, policy analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Doubling the Pell Grant would serve the dual purpose of driving down loan debt and bolstering support for low- and middle-income families.”

Despite the setbacks, higher ed organizations still see the reform as unprecedented. That includes a sector that was all but shut out and one that needs the most help because of falling enrollments and the types of students they serve: community colleges.

“The revised Build Back Better Act will do much to enhance community college programs and services that support access and success for the nation’s 11.8 million community college students,” said Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. “President Biden’s commitment to supporting community colleges as an on-ramp to the middle class has been unwavering. We stand ready to continue the work of providing relevant, affordable, and accessible opportunities that will benefit the nation’s students and workforce.  This is a win-win for America.”

Jee Hang Lee, president and CEO-elect of the American Community College Trustees added, “While we are disappointed that America’s College Promise program is not included in the framework, our advocacy for this key initiative will continue because it is necessary to ensure that all Americans can attain postsecondary education. We strongly support President Biden’s proposed enhancements to the Federal Pell Grant program, investments in postsecondary institutions that serve our most vulnerable students, new support for student retention and completion efforts, and the invigoration of critical community college workforce programs.”