WASHINGTON – Following a House vote Tuesday to extend $255 million in spending for minority-serving colleges and universities, advocacy groups are urging the Senate to take action before the funding expires Sept. 30.
“We’ve had over a dozen in-person Senate meetings, and there is some momentum on the Senate side,” said Lodriguez Murray, vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund. “But it’s up to their leadership to make sure [historically black colleges] and other [minority-serving institutions] don’t fall off this fiscal cliff.”
Harry Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public historically black colleges, called on the Senate “to follow the House’s lead and take swift action to prevent this critical funding from elapsing. We can’t allow these life-changing institutions of higher learning to go unfunded.”
The funding, established in 2008, is dedicated for schools that primarily educate minority students: tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically black colleges and universities. Many schools use the money for STEM programs – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and for scholarships and to improve facilities.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced legislation, dubbed the FUTURE Act, that would pay for a two-year, $255 million extension of the funding by eliminating a subsidy for guaranty agencies. Those nonprofit and state agencies insure student loans under the old bank-based federal lending program, known as the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, and are paid by the federal government to maintain remaining accounts and collect on defaulted debt. The legislation would put an end to those account maintenance fees, redirecting the money to the schools over the next two years.
Industry lobbyists have panned the legislation for eliminating account maintenance fees they say guaranty agencies need so they can fund programs that help with loan rehabilitation and college access. The National Council of Higher Education Resources, a trade group that represents private lenders, loan servicers, debt collectors and loan guaranty agencies, wrote the House Education Committee this week opposing the bill.
Council president James Bergeron wrote: “If [the account maintenance fee] is eliminated . . . guaranty agencies will be unable to perform critical functions that assist borrowers in avoiding default and protect federal taxpayers as the federal legacy program continues to wind down its operations.”
Groups advocating for the minority-serving schools argue that providing money to colleges and universities with minimal resources is far more important than propping up a vestige of a defunct federal program.
“The optics of trying to defend an administrative payment to vestigial parts of a dead loan system at the expense of the most under-resourced colleges in this country is a bad look,” said Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
On Tuesday evening, the House approved the chamber’s version of the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., on a voice vote. It is up to the Senate to move on the legislation, but Republican leadership so far is unwilling.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not taken a position on the legislation.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has no plans to hold a vote on the bill. He prefers a long-term solution to be created through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal law governing the sector, according to his spokesman, Taylor Haulsee.
Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has endured fits and starts in a divided Congress, and there is no certainty Senate Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement before Alexander is expected to retire in 2021. Advocates say the schools cannot afford to wait or to offset the funding if it dries up.
“The bottom line is they have no safety net,” Jones said in a speech on the Senate floor last week. “If they have no safety net, neither do the students that they serve.”
An estimated 20,000 letters and phone calls have been sent or made this month to spur Congress into action, through a joint campaign of the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Williams, of the Marshall Fund, has urged President Trump to leverage his influence with Congress to pass the two-year extension bill.
Trump made no mention of the looming deadline in his speech at the HBCU Week Conference in Washington last week, much to the disappointment of some historically black college advocates. A White House spokesman said Tuesday the president “prioritizes supporting HBCUs, and we don’t want funding for them to be interrupted at all.”
The question is whether those sentiments will translate into legislative action in the Republican-controlled Senate.