As Government Shutdown Continues, Broad Outline Emerges of Higher Education Policy Agenda for 2019
January 07, 2019

The 116th Congress began work last week amid a partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22 and is now tied for the third longest on record.

In the dispute centering on funding for a border wall, President Trump has insisted that he will not cave on his demand for $5 billion for the project to be included in a bill to fund the government for the rest of FY 2019, which runs through Sept. 30. Democrats say they are willing to discuss a more wide-ranging plan to address border security and immigration, but only after the shutdown ends. 

The primary impact on higher education so far has been on research funding. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out last week, the shutdown applies to agencies that are not covered by appropriations bills already signed into law. The bill which covers the Education Department and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been signed into law, so student aid and NIH research grants are not affected. 

However, funding bills for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Endowment for the Humanities have not been signed into law and so those agencies effectively are closed. The New York Times reported Saturday that the NSF has said it will cancel dozens of proposal review panel meetings this month if the government remains closed. 

Meanwhile, the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy and a solution for the Dreamers—the thousands of undocumented young immigrants who live in the country—fades in and out of the discussion. At a news conference last week, the president suggested he might be willing to come to an agreement with Democrats on DACA. But the subject of a DACA-for-wall deal was never broached during shutdown negotiations this weekend, The New York Times said. 

If and when the impasse comes to an end, a full agenda for higher education awaits both Congress and the administration:

DACA and Other Immigration Issues

If not resolved during shutdown negotiations—which is highly doubtful—pressure for Congress to pass legislation to address DACA is likely to increase as the Supreme Court decides early in 2019 on whether or not to take up one or more of the continuing legal cases over the Obama-era policy. 

House Democrats are likely to pass legislation early in the year that addresses both DACA and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, which also has been ended by the administration. But it is unclear if the Senate would take up the House bill. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), the Republican co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, will serve as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would likely consider any legislation that addresses DACA. ACE will continue to advocate for a bipartisan, permanent solution for our Dreamers.  

International Students and Visa Issues

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department are likely to consider changes to F-1 and J-1 visas, as well as possible changes to H-1B and Optional and Practical Training. Late last year, the administration announced it would consider changes to the "duration of status" for F-1 and J-1 visas, which would more narrowly limit visa stays for international students.  

Science and Security

As in the 115th Congress, China and issues of academic espionage will be a bipartisan focus for Congress and federal agencies, including the Department of Education, the NSF, NIH, and Department of Defense. Congress will continue to seek transparency on MOUs and partnerships between U.S. institutions of higher education and partners in China, as well as examining issues within the peer review process and shoring up reporting requirements for grant recipients about foreign grant aid.  

Sexual Assault/Title IX

The Department of Education’s proposed rule on Title IX sexual assault, published in the Federal Register for comment at the end of last year, redefines the obligations of colleges and universities related to allegations of sexual misconduct and requires significant changes to the processes institutions use to investigate and resolve such allegations. The public has until Jan. 28 to submit comments on the rule, and the Department of Education must respond to such comments before the regulations are finalized. 

For background and other information on the process, see our Title IX resource page.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA)

The HEA, first signed into law in 1965, is long overdue for reauthorization. The single most important piece of legislation overseeing the relationship between the federal government, colleges and universities, and students was last renewed in 2008 and has been running on temporary reauthorizations since 2013. 

Two HEA reauthorization bills were introduced in the House in 2017 and 2018, one by Republicans and a separate bill from the Democrats. With the Republicans in the majority, their bill—known as the PROSPER Act—was the focus of all the action in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as advocacy efforts by higher education associations and others. Under the new Democratic majority, their bill, dubbed the Aim Higher Act, is likely to be the starting point in 2019. 

With Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) announcement in December that he will not seek reelection in 2020, speculation is that Congress might step up efforts to pass a reauthorization bill this year. Alexander chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and has been a commanding voice on higher education issues since first being elected in 2003. 

Regulation of Higher Education

While 2019 looks to be less active than 2018 was in the regulatory area, the year begins with a massive negotiated rulemaking session on accreditation and innovation, slated to begin later this month. This represents the first sustained effort in a long while to look at the relationship between accreditors, institutions, and the federal government. It also presents the first time this administration has put forward a comprehensive summary of their views on higher education.  

Oversight Activities

With Democrats taking control of the House, congressional oversight of the executive branch is expected to ramp up. The House Education and Labor Committee has already announced plans to hold hearings on the Title IX, gainful employment, and borrower defense regulations; ties between the Education Department officials and for-profit colleges; and the management of loan forgiveness programs, among other issues. 

These inquiries will provide additional data and insight into the Department’s work, but historically, have also resulted in added burden on the operations of the Department, slowing down the work of staff.

Budget and Appropriations

After two years of relative stability in federal funding, 2019 may be much more challenging. 

A two-year budget deal raised the overall caps on federal funding, which allowed for significant increases in funding for programs (like Pell Grants and NIH) of interest to colleges. Those caps go away this year, and without a bipartisan agreement to put new, higher caps in place, we may see massive cuts in federal spending. At the same time, the administration has expressed growing concern about the deficit, which nearly reached $1 trillion last year, and has been steadily growing after several years of decline. It is widely expected that the President’s budget, when released, will propose massive reductions in non-defense spending, in line with the administration’s previous two budgets. 

Finally, the federal debt ceiling will need to be raised this year, and this issue tends to cause intense partisan debate. The current limit expires in March, but the government is not expected to reach the debt limit until late summer or early fall. In the past, negotiations around raising the debt limit have resulted in shutdowns and long-term deals around spending that have had significant impacts on overall federal spending.