Reconciliation Framework Increases Maximum Pell Grant, Cuts Free Community College
November 01, 2021

​​The long-awaited framework for the Democrats’ reconciliation bill has been released, a roughly $1.75 trillion package of spending priorities to support the Biden administration’s domestic agenda. 

Some of the higher education priorities that the administration wanted are included—albeit scaled back—such as an increase to the maximum Pell Grant and funding to improve workforce readiness, as well as support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, and minority serving institutions (MSIs). However, several major proposals, including free community college, have been dropped from the plan.

“We understand that reaching a final agreement was difficult and complicated, and we appreciate the increases for higher education and our students that were included, said ACE President Ted Mitchell in a statement when the framework was unveiled last week. “But higher education is this country’s greatest driver of social and economic mobility, and all of us must work to extend its benefits to more individuals. What has been outlined so far does not rise to the level of transformative change proposed by the president across a range of social initiatives, including to dramatically address existing inequities in higher education.”

The following provisions remain for higher education:

Increases the maximum Pell Grant: The bill increases the maximum award by $550 to $7,045 for the next four years. The bill includes language allowing low-income recipients of federal means-tested benefit programs (like (like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to “auto-qualify” for the maximum Pell award. The proposed boost is much smaller than the $1,475 increase the president originally called for and falls far short of his campaign pledge to double the maximum award.

Repeals Pell taxability: Under current law, students receiving federal Pell Grants are taxed if they use their grant aid for non-tuition-related costs such as room and board. The bill includes a provision that would allow students to use their Pell Grant to cover non-tuition expenses without facing any tax liability. Read ACE’s letter advocating for this change here.

Makes Dreamers eligible for financial aid: The bill makes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipients and some other non-citizen students eligible for federal student financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act for the next eight years. The Senate parliamentarian—who must approve all provisions in the bill—has turned down other attempts to include DACA in reconciliation, but because this version does not create any new programs, it might pass muster.

Funds programs for HBCUs, tribal colleges, HSIs and other MSIs: The bill provides $6 billion in new Title III and Title V funding for HBCUs, tribal colleges, and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and other MSIs over the next five years. It also allows these institutions to use this money for student financial aid, a change from existing law. In addition, the bill contains $3 billion in funding for research and development infrastructure at these institutions, though we’re still learning more details on that program. Under the president’s original plan these institutions were slated to receive $20 billion for research infrastructure at these schools.

Includes a five-year grant program to promote retention and completion: The framework provides for a five-year, $500 million program that will award competitive grants to states and state systems of higher education to promote innovative programs to increase student retention and completion. This is a significantly scaled-down version of the proposal included in the House reconciliation bill, which was funded at $9 billion.

Supports workforce and apprenticeship programs: The bill includes $5 billion for a new program to support community colleges to provide workforce training, as well as billions more to expand federal apprenticeship programs. The apprenticeship funding is expected to increase the Labor Department’s spending in this area by 50 percent for five years.

Supports climate and other research: The bill also includes $3.5 billion for the National Science Foundation (down from the $11 billion in the previous bill). The funding would be directed to a new directorate for technology, innovation, and partnerships, as well as for new research awards, climate change research, and to improve facilities and research instrumentation, with $100 million specifically directed to academic research facility modernization and research instrumentation at HBCUs, tribal colleges, and HSIs and other MSIs.  Funding is also included at other research agencies, including Department of Energy Office of Science, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency, much of which is directed to climate change research.

House Democratic leaders are pushing for votes on both the reconciliation bill as well as the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill this week. The Senate, which passed the infrastructure bill in August, would still have to vote on the reconciliation package.