Senate Republicans Introduce COVID-19 Spending Bill With $29 Billion for Higher Education
July 29, 2020

Senate Republicans introduced their version of the fifth COVID-19 supplemental spending bill on Monday, proposing about $29 billion in emergency aid for students and colleges and universities among the provisions.

The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act also includes a $5 billion fund for states that governors can spend on education at their discretion, some of which could end up going to higher education. If and when it is approved by the Senate, the legislation must be reconciled with the House emergency spending bill approved on May 15. That measure—known as the HEROES Act—allocates some $37 billion to higher education. (See ACE's summary of the higher education provisions in the HEALS Act here, and The New York Times comparison between the House and Senate bills here.)

ACE and the higher education community have asked Congress for about $47 billion for colleges and universities. An ACE survey of numerous two- and four-year campuses found the cost to institutions nationwide to reopen safely will be an additional $73.8 billion, for a total need of $120 billion.

“Unfortunately, the amount of higher education aid contained in this legislation is inadequate to address the extensive needs of the millions of students and families struggling to cope with lost jobs or reduced wages and colleges and universities reeling from lost revenues and increased costs," said ACE President Ted Mitchell in a statement.

The $29 billion for higher education in the Senate bill would go directly to institutions via the Department of Education (ED), in a formula similar to the last emergency spending bill—the CARES Act—although it does partially limit ED's ability to dictate how the funds are used. Given the problems with implementing the CARES Act, ACE and 37 other higher education groups sent a letter to Senate leaders last week encouraging them to ensure that the education funds in this spending bill are implemented more effectively.

Of course, one of the primary problems with the CARES Act was who qualified for aid, with more than 8 million students left out from even being eligible. The HEALS Act does not include any restrictions on student eligibility, but unfortunately, neither does it restrict ED from imposing student eligibility requirements, as the House bill does. 

One provision in the bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) would require student loan borrowers who have some income to resume making payments on their loans beginning Oct. 1. All borrowers are excused from making payments through Sept. 30 under the CARES Act. ACE and 45 other associations have asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to extend and expand the CARES Act loan relief provisions, given that the need for relief remains and will continue into the foreseeable future.

Among the other provisions:

  • Funding would not be dependent on institutions reopening their physical campuses, unlike some of the funds provided for K-12.

  • Ten percent of the funds would be distributed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and minority serving institutions to address needs directly related to COVID-19, and 5 percent would be directed to a grant program for institutions that the secretary of education determines to have “the greatest unmet needs related to coronavirus."

  • The Senate cuts in half the amount of aid that can be received by institutions that paid a federal tax on endowments in 2019, and only allows them to spend the money on aid to students.

  • The bill includes imited liability protections for businesses, which would apply to colleges and universities. The protections would be in place as long as businesses made reasonable efforts to comply with public health guidelines and did not engage in “grossly negligent" behavior.

Congress has roughly two weeks until both chambers are scheduled to leave for the August recess. Leaders plan to wrap up negotiations before they adjourn, but it is unclear at this point whether and when the parties will be able to reach a compromise.

COVID-19 Policy Developments

Learn more about the higher education association effort to urge Congress and the administration to craft a comprehensive response that addresses the challenges students and campuses are facing.

Read more