Senate Budget Blueprint Includes Support for Free Community College, Other Higher Ed Priorities
August 16, 2021

​​​​Chamber also approves infrastructure package that expands broadband access

In quick succession last week, the Senate passed its long-awaited $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and a budget resolution that includes free community college, support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and a path to citizenship for Dreamers. The two-track strategy delivers a pair of bills that helps advance the Biden administration’s priorities in a range of areas, including higher education.

The budget resolution lays out general spending guidelines for the federal government in the coming fiscal years, but more importantly, allows Democrats to use a special process called reconciliation to move a massive $3.5 trillion spending package later this year with only a simple majority of votes in the Senate, bypassing the filibuster.

Among the unprecedented investments in social programs and climate policy, the plan would make community college tuition-free for two years and subsidize tuition at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities, and minority serving institutions (MSIs)—a move President Biden has been advocating since the 2020 campaign. Other higher education provisions would increase the maximum Pell Grant award; invest in HBCUs and other MSIs, including money for research infrastructure; and fund student success grants, educator preparation, workforce development, and job training.

The resolution also includes a spending increase for the National Science Foundation and funding for a new technology directorate. In addition, it would give “lawful permanent status” for undocumented residents who have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and others who are undocumented. 

For more on both bills and what we can expect in the coming weeks, listen to the new episode of ACE’s dotEDU podcast:

Infrastructure Bill Includes Grant Program to Expand Broadband, Extends Emergency Program for Students and Others

Provisions in the infrastructure bill of interest to colleges and universities address expanding access to broadband, along with historic funding levels to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges and new efforts on climate change.

The major centerpiece is the Broadband Deployment Program, a $42.5 billion grant program for states to expand internet access to unserved and underserved communities and individuals and “eligible community anchor institutions.” Colleges and universities are identified in the legislation as community anchor institutions, but to be eligible, they must lack access to gigabit-level service. While most large institutions do have this level of service, the program should help bring under-connected colleges and universities up to at least a minimally viable standard of connectivity.

The bill also authorizes $2.75 billion for a Digital Equity Program, which will fund state-level digital equity planning through a grant program for the public sector and nonprofit organizations. Colleges and universities—as community anchor institutions—can serve as the lead for developing these plans. Most states likely will use state agencies as leads, but universities could and should play a role. They also will be eligible to participate in the competitive grant portion of the program.

The measure also includes $1 billion over four years for Middle Mile Infrastructure Deployment, which offers state and regional research and education networks (RENs) a chance for grant funding to increase their capacity to carry data traffic across their areas to and through the research and education network backbone (Internet2). Although funding isn’t specifically directed to RENs, as organizations like EDUCAUSE have advocated for, they will be able to compete for grants alongside other middle-mile providers.

Of particular interest to students and their families, the bill would indefinitely extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program enacted in the CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief measure passed in March 2020. Households with Pell Grant recipients will continue to qualify for support under this initiative, which has been renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program. The bill significantly increases funding for the program to $14.2 billion, although the amount of the service subsidy drops from $50 to $30 per month. This is in part because the new version requires an awareness campaign, which likely will increase participation significantly.

What’s Next

The next move in the Senate is for committees to draft legislation to accomplish the goals in the budget resolution. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said he wants to do this by Sept. 15.

In the House, the path forward on both the reconciliation measure and the infrastructure bill is even more complicated. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her party hold a narrow three-seat majority, and competing interests among moderates and progressives in the Democratic caucus make the fate of both bills uncertain.

Nine moderate Democrats have said they will not support the budget resolution until the infrastructure bill becomes law. Progressive lawmakers had said the spending plan must go first, though it likely will not be complete until fall. Either faction could stall both packages. Pelosi reportedly has asked a House committee to advance both the infrastructure plan and the spending package together, an apparent effort to manage these divisions.

The House is returning from its summer break on Aug. 23 to work on whatever plan leaders decide to pursue.

​A Brief​ Guide to the Federal Budget and Appropriations Process

Read More