The Senate on Thursday passed a bipartisan deal that would permanently restore funding to historically black colleges and universities and other schools that serve large shares of minority students.
The legislation also would simplify the federal form used to apply for student financial aid.
Although the amended bill has yet to go before the House, it was applauded as a rare instance of cooperation in a Congress that has remained deeply divided over a range of issues.
“This is an example of the kinds of important goals we can achieve when both sides reach across the aisle to find common ground,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., the bill's sponsor. “This is wonderful news for students and faculty at minority-serving institutions across the country."
If enacted, the bill would permanently grant $255 million a year to more than 100 schools designated as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, along with other institutions that serve large shares of Hispanic and Native American students.
Previous legislation promised to provide that funding every year, but it expired at the end of September after the Senate failed to renew it. The impasse threw budgets into jeopardy at scores of schools enrolling millions of students. The funding is primarily meant to support science, technology, engineering and math programs for minority institutions.
The Senate's stalemate over the funding was tied to a broader battle over the Higher Education Act, a federal law governing colleges and universities that was last reauthorized in 2008.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate's education committee, blocked a temporary extension of the funding in September and instead moved it to a package of bills he's pursuing as part of a piecemeal renewal of the Higher Education Act. But Democrats rejected the proposal, vowing to toward a more comprehensive update of the sweeping education law.
Both sides announced a compromise this week amid mounting concerns over the fate of the funding. Their agreement would permanently extend the $255 million in annual funding, a shift that has drawn wide support from education advocates.
“This permanent funding solution, which would stave off unnecessary cuts for our institutions, will allow HBCUs to continue fostering innovation and inspiring future leaders in the STEM disciplines — and that helps our nation,“ said Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.
The bill would cover the cost through savings generated by simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. By making it easier for the Education Department to gather applicants' tax information from the Internal Revenue Service, the proposal promises to remove up to 22 questions from the form and eliminate other administrative hurdles.
The changes are estimated to save $2.8 billion over a decade.
“It’s hard to think of a piece of legislation that would have more of a lasting impact on minority students and their families than this bill,” Sen. Alexander said. He added that it takes “a big first step in simplifying the FAFSA for 20 million American families.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, applauded the deal but said the funding never should have lapsed in the first place.
"I’m glad that we were able to reach a deal that provides minority-serving institutions with the certainty of funding they deserve," she said. “Now, I look forward to continuing to work with my Republican colleagues on efforts to overhaul the Higher Education Act in a comprehensive, bipartisan way that does right by all students.”
Collin Binkley can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley