Whether it was in a third grade classroom, on a community college campus, or in the most advanced university research lab, it is fair to say the 2020 fall semester looked different than any we have seen before.
As the country rushed to adapt to the pandemic in mid-March, the nation’s education enterprise scrambled to alter instructional fundamentals that had been in place, in many cases, for more than a century. Virtual learning, long viewed as a supplemental approach, became a primary instructional tool. Teachers donned PPE and reconfigured their classrooms, seeking to find ways to connect with students in between frequent outbreak-driven closures. Perhaps most challenging, even as these structural and pedagogical shifts have occurred, severe disruptions to the financial models of both K-12 and higher education have occurred.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities across the country received an early Christmas present in the form of $82 billion embedded within the 5500-page COVID relief package passed by Congress on December 21 and signed by the president on Sunday. The Bradley team has been closely monitoring this legislation, and our Government Affairs team is available at any time to offer insight and advice.
The higher education and financial aid portions of the bill are significant, with $22.7 billion allocated to higher education, distributed formulaically directly to institutions. Inside Higher Ed reports the formula being utilized for distribution remains unclear and may not directly parallel the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund methods utilized under the CARES Act; 50% of funding received by higher education institutions must be utilized for emergency aid. The bill also creates a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, allocating $4 billion to each state for purposes of “providing emergency support” to either K-12 districts or institutions of higher education.
While the direct fiscal components of the higher education measures are certain to garner the most attention, significant student aid policy alterations are adopted in the bill, most notably the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) long sought by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee). The FAFSA, long decried as a barrier to college access due to its slate of invasive questions, will be reduced from its current battery of 108 questions to just 36. This more concise application will continue to serve as the primary conduit for all student aid, including direct subsidized loans.
Additionally, the legislation includes a significant alteration to the methodology utilized to award the full Pell Grant amount to low-income students, allowing students to qualify not just based on their expected family contribution levels (students with an EFC of zero will currently receive the full Pell award of just over $6,000), but also based on a comparison of their family income against the federal poverty level.
In the K-12 arena, this legislation extends and revisits much of the same education relief territory included in the CARES Act passed last spring and specifies the following allocations:
- $57 billion for K-12 schools, the vast majority of which will move through the Title I allocation mechanism, with 90% going directly to school districts. Key allowable uses include:
- Addressing “learning loss” among students: many education policy leaders are concerned the cumulative disruption of the spring and fall semesters and attendant online learning challenges will result in a dramatic drop in student achievement.
- Purchasing of educational technology that “aids in regular and substantive educational interaction between students and their classroom instructors”.
- School facility modifications, focused on indoor air quality improvement
The Bradley team will continue to monitor progress on this legislation as it moves into the implementation and disbursement phase and is available as a resource to assist as funds are disbursed to school districts, colleges, and universities.