As Congress struggles to update the Higher Education Act, a mandatory funding stream that supports STEM programs at Minority Serving Institutions has expired.
Efforts to extend a program that provides $255 million annually in grants to Minority Serving Institutions, including for STEM programs, has stalled amid a broader debate over the Higher Education Act (HEA), which governs federal support for universities.
The program's funding is part of the federal “mandatory” budget, meaning it is automatically provided outside of the annual appropriations process. However, the program’s authorization expired at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Although its funding will last through the current academic year, an act of Congress will be required to renew it.
The House passed legislation called the FUTURE Act by voice vote in September that would extend the program for another two years. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a similar version of the bill, but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate’s education committee, has blocked it from receiving an expedited vote. He is instead urging Congress to permanently authorize the program through a broader HEA update.
Despite repeated attempts, Congress has been unable to pass a comprehensive HEA update since 2008. While Alexander has said he hopes to pass an overhaul before he retires next year, in the near term he is looking to gather support for a smaller legislative package that addresses several bipartisan priority areas.
Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the education committee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), has argued the Senate should pass the FUTURE Act and then turn to crafting a “comprehensive” update to the HEA. In the House, Democrats unveiled their vision for updating the HEA on Oct. 15. Among its many provisions, the bill would permanently reauthorize the Minority Serving Institutions program and increase its funding to $300 million per year.
Alexander rebuffs latest push in Senate
Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) made a new push to move ahead with the FUTURE Act, asking the chamber to take it up for a vote by unanimous consent, a procedure that circumvents debate on legislation but can be blocked by any one senator.
Van Hollen said Historically Black Colleges and Universities in his state have already felt the effects of the authorization lapse. Reading from a letter to Congress by the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, he said, “We already have examples of campuses notifying employees that their positions and programs will be terminated as of September 30, 2020, if not sooner. These are real jobs, held by people who interact with students every day, in programs that play a critical role in graduating and retaining students in the STEM fields, among other disciplines.”
Alexander objected to the unanimous consent request, saying the bill uses a “budget gimmick that will never pass the United States Senate.” He called for the chamber to instead take up his own legislation, which he said would not only provide the program “permanent funding that is fully paid for,” but also expand support for need-based financial aid grants at all institutions, and simplify the financial aid application process, among its other provisions.
“What I want to make clear to the Historically Black Colleges — and there are six of them in Tennessee — is that the secretary of education has written a letter assuring them that there are sufficient funds for another year,” he added. “Let's not keep pretending that we are helping the colleges with a proposal that is short-term.”