What's happening in Washington: Summer 2019
Congress could pass a new budget and funding increases for community colleges. The Department of Education rescinds gainful employment and pushes several regulatory changes.
Summer is traditionally a slow time in Washington, DC. Congress is in recess for part of July and August. During this time, many members and staff head back to their home districts or take a vacation. Despite the slowdown, there are important policy updates in terms of the federal budget, appropriations, and regulations that impact community colleges.
Federal Budget and Appropriations
In July, congressional leaders and the Trump administration struck a deal to raise the funding caps for fiscal years (FYs) 2020 and 2021. This helped clear a significant roadblock in the appropriations process for FY 2020. Instead of facing massive cuts to discretionary programs, congressional appropriators will now have an additional $24.5 billion to allocate for nondefense discretionary programs (which includes higher education) compared to FY 2019.
The House has seemingly made progress with the appropriations process. They have passed most of their appropriations bills, but at a higher funding level than is mandated under the new caps. As a result, House appropriators will have to adjust some programmatic funding levels to align with the cap. The Senate opted not to introduce any funding bills before the caps were finalized. Senate Appropriations Chairman, Richard Shelby (R-AL) indicated that the senate subcommittees will receive their allocations during August with the goal of marking bills up in September.
Based on the initial bills from the House, several programs of importance for community colleges could receive large funding increases. In particular, need-based financial aid programs will be appropriated additional funding, including the Pell Grant and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs. Other funding increases include those for workforce training; institutional grants for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Serving Institutions, Asian American & Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, and Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities; TRIO and GEAR UP programs; and campus childcare programs.
Gainful Employment - The U.S. Department of Education has been quite active on the regulatory front. The department recently finalized a rule to rescind regulations on gainful employment (GE) that were put in place during the Obama Administration. The new rule becomes final on July 1, 2020 however institutions may opt to end their GE efforts early.
Colleges ending GE efforts early will not be required to report GE data for the 2018-2019 award year to the National Student Loan Data System. Nor will they be required to comply with disclosure requirements. There is no formal process to declare that an institution plans to early implement the GE rule; however, institutions must document the decision internally.
Accreditation and Innovation - The department held negotiated rulemaking sessions this spring on accreditation and innovation. The negotiators came to consensus during negotiations, setting the stage for ED to publish a final rule by November with implementation in July, 2020. The new regulations address: accreditation; defining credit hour; the TEACH Grant program; distance education; state authorization; and competency-based issues.
State Authorization of Distance Education Programs – Following a court ruling, the Department of Education must implement the state authorization for distance education rule that was put into effect in 2016 under the Obama Administration. Under the 2016 rule a state must either have a formal process for online students to submit complaints about their institution or the state must be part of a reciprocity agreement with other states.